HAYS — Salina Central coach Doug Finch has visited Hays enough over the years that he wasn't looking for style points.
What he got was just the kind of gritty effort he wanted.
Central made up for a shaky shooting performance by defending and crashing the boards instead, and that was enough as the Mustangs came away with a 52-39 victory over Hays on Friday night in the Hays High gym.
"I loved our defense. We're always going to be good at that," said Finch, whose Mustangs forced 19 Hays turnovers outrebounded the Indians 34-20. "When you go on the road, I told them that all I care about is to come out of here with a W."
The Mustangs, who never trailed and were tied just once in the first 2 1/2 minutes, hit five of their 11 3-pointers in the first quarter on the way to a 19-8 advantage. From there they repelled every Hays rally, never allowing the Indians to get closer the rest of the way.
"We knew we'd face a zone and we're all good shooters and we just keep our confidence up and keep shooting threes," said Central senior guard Harper Williams, who was 5 of 10 from 3-point range and led the Mustangs with 15 points. "We knew we had to attack the glass because sometimes you're going to be off on your shots and we weren't on tonight."
The Mustangs (10-2) hit just 11 of 33 3-pointers for the game, but had five offensive rebounds in the first quarter alone while forcing eight Hays turnovers in the period.
"Second chances were very big," said sophomore forward Caden Kickhaefer, who had five of his team-high 10 rebounds in the opening quarter. "If I get a rebound and kick it out to our shooters, they're going to knock it down easy.
"Crashing the boards and second-chance points were really big. We kept them to one and done and got running in transition and get some easy buckets."
Central shot just 34.6 percent overall, but had 23 more attempts than Hays (6-5), which finished at 44.8 percent. The Indians did cut the lead to single digits twice in the second half, but each time the Mustangs answered.
Tragdon McCrae knocked down a 3-pointer to open the fourth quarter and cut the deficit to 42-35, only to have Brogen Richardson connect at the other end to push it back to double digits.
"Finch preaches defense, defense, defense," Williams said. "We were pretty locked in on the defensive end."
In addition to Williams, Central got 11 points from David Grammer, eight from Mark Grammer and seven from Kickhaefer. Braiden Meyers was 4 of
6 from 3-point range to lead Hays with 12 points, while McCrae fouled out late with 11 points and five rebounds.
Williams had eight rebounds for Central.
Hays girls 73, Central 65
The Central girls were riding high against Hays in the first half, shooting a scorching 57.7 percent on the way to a 39-26 advantage, only to have it unravel after intermission.
Hays opened the second half with a 20-2 run to claim its first lead, then withstood a pair of Central charges in the fourth quarter to improve to 8-3, while the Mustangs fell to 7-5.
"It was gigantic," Hays coach Alex Hutchins said of the Indians' spurt to start the second half. "That really just changed the tide of the entire game."
Central, which trailed by three at the end of three quarters, came back to briefly regain the lead, 51-50, on a Sara Opat 3-pointer with 7:05 left, but Mattie Hutchison countered from three for Hays. And after two Hampton Williams free throws knotted it at 53 at the 6:41 mark, the Indians ran off seven straight, capped by a Brooke Denning three-point play.
Central got it back to 60-59 on Williams' three-point play, but an 11-3 run by Hays put it out of reach.
"They made a nice run, but the part that was most disappointing for me was that we gave up way too many offensive rebounds," said Central coach Chris Fear, whose Mustangs were outrebounded 47-34, including 26-15 in the second half.
For Hays, Savannah Schneider led the way with 26 points and eight rebounds, while Jaycee Dale adding 15 points and eight boards. Central got 18 points from Aubrie Kierscht, 16 from Cobb and 14 from Williams, who also had eight rebounds.
The Mustangs were without leading senior forward Selah Merkle, who stayed home with an injury.
"Any time you take your leading scorer and rebounder out of the equation, it's a factor," Fear said. "But I really thought our group stepped up.
"We kept fighting, and that shows some progress."