Ethan Kickhaefer knew he'd been through a war.
Salina Central coach Doug Felt as though his Mustangs had just won on a last-second shot.
In other words, nothing about the Mustang boys' 73-59 victory Tuesday night against Maize South came easy.
"It felt like it was back and forth," Kickhaefer, Central's senior center said after the Mustangs handled everything a relentless Maize South team threw at them. "It didn't feel like 14 points."
The Class 5A battle between No. 3-ranked Central and No. 4 Maize South, saw the Mustangs break the game open with a big second quarter, then show enough poise to withstand a pair of Maverick runs in the second half and close it out at the Central gym.
"They never give up," Finch said of Maize South, which fell to 5-2. "But that's the best thing that could have happened to us.
"We had a 12-point halftime lead and they cut it to six, but I'm really proud of our kids for hanging in there. We're trying to get over that hump against really good teams and finish games."
The Mustangs (6-2) used an active zone defense to keep the taller Maize South's inside game in check in the first half, forcing 18 turnovers before the break, including 12 in the pivotal second quarter. And after the Mavericks cut a 32-20 halftime deficit to 36-30 midway through the third period, Central showed enough patience to stretch it back out.
"We just had to trust our guards to help off so they couldn't get the lobs inside," said the 6-foot-4 Kickhaefer, who finished with 10 points and five rebounds. "We just got up in their grill and pressured them.
"Our guards also did a good job finding me inside, especially when we had a mismatch."
The Mustangs got off to a blistering start, scoring the game's first nine points, but led just 11-10 after one quarter. Ethan Speer then went to work inside, knocking down two free throws and converting a three-point play to put the Mustangs in front for good.
A pair of 3-pointers from Sam Shaffer and Quin Stewart stretched the lead to 24-15 and Stewart drained another three with 2:04 left in the half to push the lead to 29-18.
The Mustangs took a 50-34 lead into the fourth quarter and stretched it to 18 points before Maize South again made another run. But the closest the Mavericks got was nine points, 66-57, on Hayden Bontrager's two free throws with 1:27 left, and Central closed it out with a late flurry.
Speer led Central with 20 points and six rebounds, while Shaffer had 13 points and Stewart nine — all in the second quarter — off the bench. The Mustangs shot 70.5 percent from the field in the second half and 51.2 percent for the game.
Nolan Veenis' 17 points led the way for Maize South, which shot 47.7 percent from the floor but went just 12 of 22 from the foul line. Central was 25 of 36 from the line.
Maize South outrebounded the Mustangs, 33-26, with Kael Kordonowy grabbing eight and Veenis six.
Salina Central girls 61,
Maize South 30
Central (6-2) used a combination of deadly perimeter shooting and Elisa Backes' scoring underneath to make quick work of Maize South.
The Mustangs stretched a 15-5 first-quarter lead to 29-9 at halftime as Myah Ward drilled four 3-pointers.
"I thought we moved the ball around well and got anything we wanted on offense," said Ward, who scored all 14 of her points in the first half. "Sometimes teams get so focused on our inside game because Elisa is so big, and they forget we have some good shooters."
The Mustangs' defense also was effective, limiting Maize South to four first-half field goals on 19 percent shooting. The Mavericks (3-4) were just 1 of 10 from 3-point range in the game and finished at 24.4 percent overall from the floor.
"Defense is the No. 1 thing we've focused on," Ward said. "I thought we did a good job tonight.
"That was our best game of the season, I believe."
Central coach Chris Fear agreed.
"I think that's our best game of the year in terms of doing everything we wanted to do," he said. "I think our team is coming together."
Eight different players scored for the Mustangs, led by Backes with 19 points and 13 rebounds. Central outrebounded Maize South, 32-27.
Katie Wagner had 17 points and nine rebounds to lead Maize South.