By BRETT MARSHALL
SCOTT CITY — The Holcomb Longhorns boys basketball team was looking for the third time being the charm to find a way to upset No. 1-ranked and defending 3A state champion Scott City when the teams hit the floor on Saturday night in the finals of the Class 3A sub-state tournament.
It was the second straight year for the two Great West Activities Conference rivals to battle it out for the right to head to Hutchinson and the state tournament, which begins on Wednesday.
The Beavers, though, saw to it that was no charm for the Longhorns, methodically pushing the Longhorns aside, 71-47, and now can head to Hutchinson to defend their title.
Just as they had in earlier wins over the Longhorns (63-46 in December and 68-43 in February), the Beavers used their smothering defense to set the plate for another run at the state title.
"Whether it's one senior, two seniors, everybody has their role on the team," said Scott City's Braeden Robinson, just one of two seniors on the roster, but the lone upperclassmen who sees considerable playing time. "There's pressure to every game, and I think when we started the game we were a little over-excited. We had that little hesitation, but when we calmed down, I thought we were able to play much better."
A sluggish start had the game at 5-4 Scott City halfway through the first quarter, before the Beavers went on their first run of the game, a 7-0 sprint that provided them a 12-4 lead that resulted in a 12-6 advantage at the end of the first. Reserve junior Anthony Wilson, who transferred from Greeley County after his father became school superintendent at Scott City, made the biggest contribution by scoring all five of his points in that opening period.
"He was a nice spark for us," said Scott City coach Glenn O'Neil. "He had some early injuries, but he stepped in and did a good job for us."
A small run of 5-0 midway through the second quarter enabled the Beavers to extend their lead to 24-12, and they took a 32-19 lead into the lockerroom.
"Scott City's one of those teams that is fundamentally sound, and from start to finish, you've got to find a way to stay with them," Holcomb coach Chad Novack said. "I thought our kids did a good job defending early, but we had some unforced turnovers that led to transition points for them. They're good, they pass and shoot the ball well."
The second half opened with a 6-0 run that combined with the end of the second quarter saw the Beavers on an 11-0 stretch, giving Scott City a 38-19 lead. The Longhorns would never close the gap to fewer than 16 points the rest of the way.
Robinson sparked that second quarter outburst with seven of his 11 points. And while the frontcourt tandem of juniors Drew Kite and Joey Meyer were somewhat silent in the first half, the second half was much different. Each finished with 14 points and of their 28 total, 23 of those came in the second half.
"We were getting pushed around early, so we just got ourselves in a lower position in the second half," said Kite, who finished with a double-double by grabbing 15 rebounds. "They're really strong with their big guys. Shane (Bennett) does a good job, but I was able to get in a better place the second half, and the guards did a great job of getting us the ball where we wanted."
The Beavers had an uncharacteristic 23 turnovers to 17 for the Longhorns. They finished 26-of-45 shooting from the field (57.7 percent) and were 17-of-23 at the free throw line (73.9 percent). Holcomb, meanwhile, hit a chilly 20-of-57 (35 percent) and were only 6-of-12 at the charity stripe. Scott City had a 38-29 rebounding advantage.
With a No. 1 seed now in their pocket for Wednesday's state tourney opener (6:30 p.m. vs. Beloit), the Beavers can rest assured they've established their own identity a year after Ron Baker, now a redshirt freshman at Wichita State University, led the team to its dramatic state title win.
"All year, I think we've been proving people wrong who said we're not as good without Ron," Kite said. "He was a great player, and we really appreciate what he did for us, but now we can all contribute in our own way."
Coach O'Neil, with two of his sons (junior Brett and freshman Trey) playing important roles, as well, concurred with Kite about this team having its own identity.
"You love your seniors, but then they go on to bigger things," coach O'Neil said. "This group has made their own identity. We're just a different team than we were a year ago. This group had a chance to be good, they've spent a lot of time together on the court. We've managed to get through a tough schedule. Holcomb and Ulysses were big dots on the schedule, and the Word of Life (lone loss in December) game was good for us. We were able to get them back later and get ourselves re-focused."
For the Longhorns, finishing their first season under Novack's direction, the team is laden with underclassmen.
After an 0-4 start in which they lost to three large-class schools in the Southwest Classic in early December and then to Scott City at home, the Longhorns went 15-4 the rest of the way, including two more losses to the Beavers.
"I think we've improved from the beginning to the end of the season," Novack said of his team, which loses just seniors Andrew Homer and Brendan Thomas. "They learned to play as a unit and understand what playing as a team really means. I'm proud of the effort we gave every night, even tonight. We fought all the way to the end."
Junior Tyler LaSalle and sophomore Heath Tucker paced the Longhorns scoring with 14 and 12 points, respectively. Frontcourt players Shane Bennett and Max Ramsey contributed 8 points each and combined for 11 rebounds.