By KEVIN THOMPSON
HAYS - For Greeley County, Gross Memorial Coliseum in Hays must have seemed like the Roman Coliseum for the first 20 minutes of Saturday's Class 1A-Division II state title game against Hope.
For a while, it must have seemed like bunnies amidst lions.
But in a championship game, it's all about keeping composure, even when things seem bleak.
The Jackrabbits overcame a dismal first half, rallied from 15 down in the second half and closed with a 28-5 run to claim the boys' crown with a 42-35 win over the Hope Lions.
It was the first title for the team from Tribune since 1968, and they did it on a night when members of that team were honored in a pre-game ceremony as part of the celebration of 100 years of Kansas high school boys state basketball tournaments.
And all it took was some patience, a solid press, and some senior leadership.
The seniors have won 89 games over the past four seasons, and this likely was the biggest of them all.
"They played big for me all year. Once we got the press going and some energy, those seniors got on fire," Greeley County coach Jeff Starkey said.
The top-seeded Jackrabbits had fallen behind the second-seeded Wildcats 29-14 on just 6-for-28 shooting with 3:32 left in the third quarter.
Then, suddenly the momentum shifted as Greeley County pressed for the first time all game, catching Hope off guard.
Senior Clay Robertson got a steal off that press, was fouled, and sank both free throws, the catalyst of a remarkable 20-4 run in the next 9:36 that gave the Jackrabbits a 34-33 lead.
Seniors Jonathan Miller and Stephen Houston nailed eight straight free throws while Hope only managed one field goal after that to cap a 28-6 Jackrabbit run to end the game and give the western Kansas team its 18th straight win and the championship.
"We've come back from large deficits before and we do it by going to the press. Part of the reason we don't go to the press more is, when we need it, it's a surprise," Starkey said. "Maybe we can catch them off guard and play a little tighter with the lead."
Starkey said he didn't want Hope talking about a press situation at halftime, so he didn't use it until late in the third.
"By going to it after halftime, they were surprised. The momentum really changed," he said.
For Hope coach Joe Ross, the press was the key to his team's demise as his guards had trouble handling the ball.
"We outplayed them for three quarters and then kind of panicked. We haven't really been bothered that much by a press all year. We weren't aggressive enough. We didn't attack the press," Ross said.
Things were rough for the champions early.
Greeley County's only field goal of the first quarter came on Anthony Wilson's putback at 3:54. They tied the game in the second at 9-9 after Wilson stole the ball and hit sophomore AJ Govert for a three from the corner.
Hope went on an 8-0 run over the final five minutes to take an 18-9 lead at the break.
Greeley County was only 4-of-23 in that half, which coach Jeff Starkey clearly emphasized to his team in the locker room. What he stressed was only being down by nine despite the poor shooting.
"We weren't rebounding as well as we should have. I wasn't playing defense as well as I should have," Miller said of the first half. "Coach just said, 'There's nothing I can do for you to make shots.' That's all we really needed to do."
After falling behind by 15, the Jackrabbits' press caused three straight turnovers and led to seven unanswered points. After Robertson's free throws, Miller hit a jumper and Chaz Schneider nailed a three.
Miller hit a three from the top of the arc to open the fourth and close the gap to 31-24, and Greeley County wouldn't score again until the 4:10 mark. But the defense picked up the slack with the same man-to-man intensity the Wildcats had used so effectively earlier.
Clearly rattled, Hope ran a four-corners offense, unable to get the ball inside. The wider distance meant longer passes, and that led to more steals.
A 10-second count led to Miller driving the baseline for a reverse layup and a foul. That three-point play gave Greeley County the lead at 32-31 with 3:04 to play, capping an 11-0 run from the start of the period.
Govert nailed two free throws to give the Jackrabbits a three-point lead before Todd Kickhaefer got Hope its first points of the quarter with just 1:21 left.
The Wildcats were forced to foul after that, but Greeley County wouldn't miss at the foul line. In fact, they were 13-of-15 at the charity stripe, all in the second half.
"They were not expecting that," Houston said of his team's final push. "We haven't run that press much this season. If we did, these guys would have known it. We run it and they didn't know what hit them. That was the turning point right there. It was over."
Kickhaefer led the Lions (22-4) with 19 points and 13 boards, the bulk of those in the first half.
Miller led the Jackrabbits (23-3) with 15 points and Houston added 10 in their final game.
Robertson had five points but more importantly had four steals.
"I never really thought it was over," he said. "The press really turned the game around. I don't think you could have written it any better."
Schneider, whose father played on the 1968 team, said the comeback was just part of what the Jackrabbits have focused on all season.
"All year we knew we could do it. And to come back from such a big deficit, it was amazing," he said. "We had a point where we lost three in a row (in December), but we came back and maintained focused, in this game especially."
The last time the Jackrabbits appeared in the finals was in 2002, when they lost to Centralia.
Last year they lost in the first round to Baileyville B&B.
Hope 7 11 13 4 -- 35
Greeley Co. 2 7 12 21 -- 42
Hope — Bird 1-5 0-0 2, Goracke 2-6 0-0 4, D. Davidson 0-1 0-1 0, Kickhaefer 7-8 5-6 19, Mudd 4-7 0-0 10, Lorson 0-0 0-0 0, Haslouer 0-2 0-0 2. 14-29 (48.3%), 5-7 (71.4%) 35.
Greeley County — Miller 5-12 3-3 15, Schneider 1-7 0-0 3, Wilson 2-3 0-0 4, Robertson 1-8 2-2 5, Houston 2-9 6-8 10, Govert 1-4 2-2 5, Yanez 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 12-43 (28%_) 13-15
3-point goals - Hope 2-5 (Bird 0-1, Goracke 0-1, Mudd 2-3), Greeley Co. 5-15 (Miller 2-2, Schneider 1-5, Robertson 1-5, Houston 0-1, Govert 1-2). Rebounds - Hope 26 (Kickhaefer 13), Greeley Co. 22 (Wilson 6, Yanez 6). Turnovers - Hope 17, Grreeley Co. 6. Blocks - Hope 4 (Goracke 2), Greeley Co. 0. Steals - Hope 2, Greeley Co. 9 (Robertson 4). Fouls - Hope 17, Greeley Co. 13. Fouled out - Bird, Goracke, Wilson.