SALINA — McPherson High School girls basketball team waited a full year to get another crack at Bishop Miege High School, and it was expected to be a tough battle until the end. After coming from behind, the Lady Pups pulled through in overtime with their first Class 4A Division 1 State Championship in four years, ending the chapter of the Lady Pups' successful season.
The Stags showed why they were a dominant team at 22-2 on the season by snagging a huge lead at the top of the game. The Stags were already on a 5-0 run in the first three minutes of the first quarter, courtesy of Johnni Gonzalez. Bishop Miege also brought their size advantage: 6-foot-1 freshman Faith Hawthorne showed more physicality against McPherson's frontcourt. She already had 10 points, Bishop Miege was up 35-26 and ended the first half on a 7-0 run.
"We just had to pound, pound nonstop, and have our feet spread out. We had to be quicker than her because she's a bigger girl. Coaches taught us that we have to move our feet, and that's what we did," said Mandi Cooks about defending Hawthorne.
Taylor Robertson, despite finding wide open shots, wasn’t nailing any 3-pointers. McPherson shot 33 percent from behind the arc and Robertson was 0-for-7 from the 3-point line, so she had to come up with different ways to put points on the board. What was working for the senior was free throw shooting — she made 13 of her 14 free throw attempts.
"That was really important. If shots are not falling in, you had to find other ways to help the team, and free throws were the easiest way to do it,” Robertson said.
Everything changed when McPherson’s head coach Chris Strathman called a timeout with three minutes left in the fourth quarter. All of sudden, a 3-pointer from the wing by Andrea Sweat got the Lady Pups rolling.
The Stags missed buckets from all over the place, including two missed free throws from Jordyn Gonalez, who scored 12 points. With a minute left, Strathman used the little time his team had left wisely, knowing that the clock was McPherson's worst enemy.
McPherson's defense came to life in the frontcourt. Hawthorne only scored six points in the second half and the Gonzalez girls combined for one field goal made in the final two quarters.
"We went with our trap defense that really bothered them. One thing we had to do was change the pace a little bit. We also had to cover the clock because if we gave them the lead with the running clock, they're unbeatable. We experienced that too many times," Strathman said.
Next thing you know, the game was tied — thanks to Riley Hett's corner 3-pointer. She would finish the night with 11 points and the Lady Pups fought their way into overtime.
With three minutes left in regulation, Robertson had possession and was fouled after going for a layup. Making both her free throws, the Lady Pups got their first ever lead of the night. Once the Lady Pups got ahead, they never turned back.
"We just believed that we could do it and we just conquered when we went out on that court with no fear, and we did it. We just played our hearts out, and that's all you could ask for," Cooks said.
It was 58-55 with a minute left. The Stags were desperate to get possession, but things went McPherson's way and they relied upon their free throws from both Hett and Robertson after being fouled. Hett missed her second attempt and Bishop Miege was on the attack. Again, it was a possession after Payton Verhulst nailed a corner 3-pointer, making it 59-58 with 21.9 seconds. Running out of options, the Stags had to foul Robertson. Her second attempt was her only miss after making her first one with 1.9 seconds. Time ran out for the Stags and the Lady Pups closed the deal.
"It was huge, when we get her to the foul line, we feel pretty confident that she was going to make 98 percent of her free throws," Strathman said.
Both Cooks and Robertson dealt with trials and tribulations as seniors. Both have been starving for a championship ever since they played together in middle school and were so close to one last year.
"It's hard to believe that it actually happened. That's something you would dream about when you were a little kid and we finally did it," Robertson said.
The Lady Pups have now won their ninth state title in school history.
Contact Peter Holland Jr. by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Petes_Picks_