On to state
McPherson High basketball teams find postseason success
Both the boys’ and girls’ teams have fought through the grind of a normal season, with the added challenge of facing a global pandemic, and are passing with flying colors.
The boys are currently 12-10, heading into the state tournament after downing hated rival Buhler (15-6) 57-54 Friday night in the Sub-State No. 1 championship. The girls are 18-3 as of Saturday morning, before facing Nickerson on the road for the chance to go to state.
Head coaches Kurt Kinnamon (of the boys’ team) and Chris Strathman (girls' team) would be the first to say that the season has been full of ups and downs, but the teams appear to be peaking just at the right time.
Kinnamon said that losing so much senior talent from the year prior forced this year’s edition to learn on the fly, which has resulted in several close games and losses in those situations.
Led by seniors Jayton Alexander, Adam Elliott, and Elijah Pyle, the problem never was a lack of talent across the board.
“We’re doing a better job of finishing right now, for sure, and playing with more confidence,” Kinnamon said. “I’ve thought all along that once this team figures out how good they can be, they have the chance to be a tough out at the end of the year, and that’s proved to be the case.”
Over the course of the season, they have also improved defensively, a big priority for Kinnamon who believes in playing tough man-to-man defense.
The pandemic impacted the team minimally, as Kinnamon said the strangest new normal was having to exert more effort to call a player off the bench because the seats were spread so far apart.
McPherson was one of few teams to play a full 20-game schedule, despite having to reschedule a few of those contests.
After finishing the regular season at 10-10 and tying for first in the Arkansas Valley Chisholm Trail League (Division III) with Buhler and Augusta at 8-2, the Bullpups started hot in the first round of Sub-State, downing Pratt 59-25.
They then turned to prepare a familiar foe in Buhler, who they had played twice in the regular season, winning 74-57 in December, and by one point in mid-February off two missed free throws.
Kinnamon spoke of doing “the little things” after Wednesday’s practice to earn a victory Friday night, stressing limiting turnovers and rebounding free-throw attempts from the Pratt game.
The Buhler game started fast and the lead changed hands on several occasions, but Buhler gradually gained control. They took a three-point lead into the second quarter, and after McPherson tightened the score to 16-15, Buhler went on a 9-0 run that culminated in a 10-point lead with seconds to go in the first half.
Jayton Alexander had earned two fouls early in the game, the offense looked stagnant, and the referees’ calls did not favor McPherson either. Alexander responded well and banked in a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to seven as the first half buzzer sounded.
Kinnamon said that at halftime he did not need to lay into the team, but merely pointed out that they were not playing up to their potential.
“This isn’t a team that you have to ra-ra, tell them not to quit because they just don’t,” he said after the game. “They’re tremendous competitors, and as a coach, that’s what you’re most proud of.”
McPherson came out fully energized in the third quarter, forcing three straight turnovers and cutting Buhler’s lead to 25-22. They kept fighting, and a corner three from Elliott gave the Bullpups their first lead of the game at 32-30 with 3:30 to play in the third.
Continued defensive pressure and big shots on offense extended McPherson's lead to 39-34 going into the final frame, as they outscored Buhler 21-9 to swing the momentum to their side.
Buhler fought back, led by senior guard Max Alexander, who scored seven straight points. He fouled out with 2:14 remaining, and McPherson hit one free throw to lead 50-46.
A wild end to the game saw Buhler’s Taiden Hawkinson hit a couple of huge shots, including a 3-pointer to bring the deficit to one with 16.4 seconds left.
Elliott then hit two free throws, and Buhler’s final attempt bounced off the rim to end it as the McPherson faithful erupted in the stands.
Including Elliott and Alexander’s leading performances, Hunter Alvord contributed as well to produce the “total team effort” Kinnamon wanted to have.
The boys move on to the quarterfinals, taking on Abilene on the road at 6:00 p.m. Monday.
The Lady Bullpups headed into Saturday’s game at Nickerson looking to reach their 24th state tournament appearance under Coach Strathman, after a dominating 74-20 win over Pratt in the first round of Sub-State.
They entered the season with high expectations, as usual, and to date, Strathman feels that the team has met those expectations well.
The team suffered two early losses to Dodge City and Kansas City (MO)’s The Barstow School, and last lost to Andover Central in mid-February.
Despite the loss, the girls responded well, knowing the type of talent they faced in that contest.
“We told the girls after the game...that we can go the rest of the season and not play a team as skilled offensively as Andover Central,” Strathman said.
Since then, McPherson has won six straight, including Tuesday’s game against Pratt.
The Lady Bullpups overwhelmed Pratt with their pressure, forcing turnovers and getting easy baskets in transition, as they only gave up two points in the first quarter.
Full-court pressure is where the team is most comfortable. They get into that defense early and do not relent unless necessary.
“Our girls like to get up and play in the full-court. Our best offense a lot of the time this season has been our defense. Getting steals and layups, and getting right back into pressure, our girls feed off that.”
The team sticks with man-to-man defense throughout the game, and Strathman did not plan on changing that strategy against Nickerson.
While the two teams have not faced off in several years, proximity has brought familiarity, and McPherson showed up ready, knocking off the now 19-4 Panthers 53-35.
They know their journey is far from over, as they continue their quest to get the seniors on the team to their fourth Final Four appearance in the state tournament in four years.
McPherson also looks to finish what they started last year, when they got to the Final Four and could not play because of cancellations due to COVID-19.
They play next on Tuesday.