By KEVIN THOMPSON
A team's top goal in the playoffs is to survive first, then move on.
Following Darwin's theory of survival almost too closely for comfort, the Garden City Buffaloes did just that on Wednesday night at The Garden, holding off a late charge by Wichita Northwest to win 46-43 in the Class 6A sub-state semifinals.
The win propels the Buffaloes into the title game, which they will host at 7 p.m. Saturday either against Wichita North or Wichita South. Those two teams play tonight at 7 p.m. at North.
After playing a more dominating first half in which they led 24-16 at the break and held a 12-6 edge on rebounds, the second-seeded Buffaloes needed all they could muster to withstand a Grizzly comeback in the second half.
Garden City shot just 2 of 11 from the floor in the third quarter as Northwest closed the lead to four points, 32-28.
Two minutes into the fourth quarter, they cut it to one on Nick Williams' only 3-pointer of the night.
Jared Koster answered with a trey of his own following a turnover at 4:53, but then the Buffs went on a scoring drought that saw them hit just three free throws in the next three-and-a-half minutes.
They held a 42-37 lead at that point, though, and extended that to 45-38 with a minute remaining.
The Grizzlies' Cortez Carr hit his third layup of the quarter to cut the lead to five. Following a Garden City turnover and two missed free throws on their next possession, Kaleb Carr nailed a three with 19.5 seconds remaining to cut the lead to 45-43.
Koster was fouled in the backcourt and hit one of two free throws, and two final trey attempts by Northwest missed their mark in the final seconds and the Buffs had the win.
Coach Jacy Holloway said he was not surprised by the Grizzlies not going away in the second half, but he said the week-long layoff for his team didn't help matters.
While the Buffs' defense held Northwest to just five field goals in the first half, he said his team didn't rebound as well as it could.
"We got them to take bad shots and force some turnovers, but we didn't really capitalize on that," he said.
Coming out after halftime, Holloway said he thought the Buffs looked strong, but a missed layup followed by an opposing three by Daylin Johnson turned the tide that led to the Grizzlies' comeback attempt. Northwest's pressure defense had something to do with that.
"We didn't play a lot of guys because we didn't think some of our other guards could handle their pressure," Holloway said. "So we were playing a lot of tired guys and the pressure hurt them a little bit at times."
The Buffs tried to pull the ball out and run some offense to give themselves a break on defense, he said, but two straight turnovers changed that philosophy.
The Buffs hit just five field goals in 15 attempts in the second half, and some of that was Northwest pressure, Holloway said, but a number of them were good looks, just bad luck.
Koster finished the game with 15 points to lead the Buffs, going 4 of 6 from the field and 5 of 6 from the floor. Tristan Ninninga added 11.
"It feels amazing because now we're one game away from state," the sophomore Koster said, "and a Garden City team's never gone back-to-back to state. We have a chance to make history now."
Koster's trey in the fourth quarter was big, he said, because the Grizzlies had started to make a comeback.
"I had the open shot and it just went in," he said. "It was big at that point."
His three free throws later also stopped some bleeding, he said, acknowledging that he didn't feel much pressure, despite the Buffs as a team going just 13-of-22 from the line.
"We've struggled with free throws all year. I hope it doesn't come down to that being a factor," Holloway said.
Koster's effort was more impressive because his eight fourth-quarter points came when he was playing tired, Holloway said.
"They pressured him more and got him out of his comfort zone, but he handled it pretty good," he said.
A shot that didn't seem that huge at the time but turned out to be a difference was Hunter Delgado's nearly half-court shot at the halftime buzzer that was more throw than shot.
"I don't want to say that we practice those, but we have for fun at times at the end of practice lined them all up for one shot at half court just to see what happens," Holloway said. "Not for that purpose, but just to have a good time. I guess it paid off."
As the Buffs (13-8) await their Saturday opponent, Holloway said his team will have the chance to rest.
"Having the whole week off actually hurt our stamina a bit," he said. "I think this was more of a conditioning thing, not so much focus. Maybe the rest of at least one day extra will help us."
Cobb and Carr each had 12 points to lead the Grizzlies, who finish their season at 5-16.
Wichita Northwest 6 10 12 15 -- 43
Garden City 11 13 8 14 -- 46
Wichita NW (5-16)--N. Williams 2 4-4 9, Cobb 4 3-5 12, Johnson 1 0-0 3, Meyer 2 0-0 4, Carr 3 6-10 12, Johnston 1 0-0 3. Totals 13-36 13-19 43.
Garden City (13-8)--Tramp 3 0-3 6, Delgado 1 3-4 6, Koster 4 5-6 15, Hernandez 1 0-0 2, Nanninga 4 3-7 11, Rodriguez 2 2-2 6. Totals 15-36 13-22 46.
3-point goals--WNW 4-15 (N. Williams 1-7, Cobb 1-5, Johnson 1-1, Grant 0-1, Caldwell 0-1, Johnston 1-1), Garden City 3-4 (Delgado 1-1, Koster 2-3). Rebounds--WNW 18 (Carr 5), Garden City 26 (Rodriguez 8, Tramp 6). Turnovers--WNW 8, Garden City 12. Fouled out--none. Total fouls--WNW 16, Garden City 17. Technical fouls--none.