HAYS — In a tale of two halves on Thursday evening in an opening-round Class 5A sub-state basketball tournament game, the Great Bend High School Panthers picked the second half to hit their stride.
To be sure, the Panthers looked to be in trouble, struggling mightily and trailing 20-5 with 4:54 remaining in the first half. Host Hays held a 23-14 halftime lead, and it might have been worse hadn’t Great Bend closed the half with a 9-3 run.
In a complete turnaround, though, the Panthers unleashed a momentum-swinging 14-6 surge to slash the margin to 29-28 in the third quarter. From there, they rode the momentum down the stretch for a 46-43 victory.
Hays had a game-tying 3-pointer go off the mark with four seconds left in regulation, and the Panthers could finally celebrate.
Great Bend (12-9) advances to the sub-state championship game on Saturday night at 5:30 against top-ranked and top-seeded McPherson at Salina South — site of sub-state play. Hays ends its season at 10-10.
So, what was the difference for the Panthers in the second half?
“Defensively, we played much better,” GBHS head coach Chris Battin said. “We picked it up and we were getting after it out front and were playing much harder than we did in the first half.
“Offensively, we were more patient and took better shots. That was kind of a difference between the two halves. In the first half, I was getting a little nervous.”
Greg Hildebrand, the Panthers’ undersized 6-foot-2 senior post player, scored a game-high 15 points, including seven in the decisive fourth quarter where Great Bend outscored the Indians 18-9.
“He played really well,” Battin said Hildebrand. “He hit some big shots and found himself in the post a couple times and posted up really well.
“He’s just a competitor and you can’t say enough about a kid who will go out and compete. When you compete, good things happen.”
Jace Bowman, a junior shooting guard, added 12 points off the bench for the Panthers and senior swingman Dakota Ellis scored five of his 11 points in the final eight minutes.
“We found a way to do it,” Battin said, “and that’s what you have to do this time of year. You just have to fight and scratch and come out and find a way to get it done.”
The Panthers survived down the stretch despite making only 5 of 11 free throws in the fourth quarter.
Chris Schultz’s unguarded 3-pointer from the top of the key with four seconds left in the third quarter gave Hays a 34-28 lead.
At the outset of the final period, after a GBHS basket, both teams were scoring in multiples of three — Ellis converting a three-point play before Schultz answering with a 3 and Hildebrand doing the same on the other end to close the gap to 37-36 with 5:27 left.
Hildebrand, who scored seven straight points at one point down the stretch, scored on a power move to give the Panthers a 38-37 lead with 3:59 left.
After Hays center Zack Gaughan missed inside, Hays guard Seth Tophoj was whistled for his fifth foul, sending Hildebrand to the free-throw line. Hildebrand missed the free throw, but even bigger was Tophoj’s departure.
“It was big,” Battin said of Tophoj fouling out with 3:28 remaining. “We were attacking him a little bit, so that helped us.
“When you get their best shooter in foul trouble, that always helps you out. They maybe concentrated a little more in the post, so that was a big key in the game.”
After Hildebrand’s miss, he more than made up for it, stealing the ball and driving in for a layup and a 40-37 GBHS lead.
After Trey Lynd hit a basket from the left elbow at the 2:50 mark to pull Hays within 40-39, Great Bend’s Cameron Casey scored off his own miss after a feed into the low post to give the Panthers a 42-39 lead.
Ellis’ pair of free throws with 42.8 seconds left gave the Panthers a 44-39 lead before Schultz hit a driving layup on the other end at the 32.5-second mark to make it a three-point game.
After Ellis missed a pair at the line with 18.2 seconds left, Hays’ Trey Herman converted a pair of fouls to make it a one-point game with 16.9 ticks left.
With Hays forced to foul, the Indians put Bowman on the line and he converted both critical free throws with 15.8 seconds left to make it 46-43.
That led to Lynd missing his 3 near the buzzer.
The Panthers eliminated Hays for the second straight season as they beat the Indians in the sub-state championship game at McPherson a year ago to qualify for the state tournament.
Now, they head to Salina South, to take on McPherson.
“You get a chance to try to go to state and that’s all that you can ask at this time of year,” Battin said. “It doesn’t really matter the team. You’ve got to go out and give your best effort and play as hard as you can and do everything that you can to try to get there and we’re going to let the chips fall where they may.
“We’re just going to have to watch some film and figure out a game plan to contain their athletes, their basketball players,” Battin said We’re just going to have to get prepared (today) and be ready to go.”
HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL
Class 5A Sub-State
Great Bend 46, Great Bend 43
GREAT BEND (12-9)
Jace Bowman 5 2-3 12, Greg Hildebrand 6 1-4 15, Cameron Casey 1 0-0 2, Jeff Pike 0 0-0 0, Will Gray 1 1-2 3, Dakota Ellis 3 3-5 11, Roderick Frise 1 1-1 3, Wyatt Bayless 0 0-0 0. Totals 17 8-15 46.
Seth Tophoj 2 2-2 10, David Hayden 0 0-0 0, Chris Schultz 4 0-0 11, Trey Herman 0 3-4 3, Charles Howell 2 2-4 6, Trey Lynd 1 0-1 2, Zack Gaughan 3 5-5 11. Totals 14 10-14 43.
Great Bend 3 11 14 18 — 46
Hays 10 13 11 9 — 43
Three-point goals —Hays 5 (Schultz 3, Tophoj 2); Great Bend 4 (Ellis 2, Hildebrand 2 ).