DODGE CITY — When Moscow boys basketball coach looked at the Sharon Springs Wildcats for a scouting report, he was reminded of his own team when he saw how the defending Class 1A-II champions played.
So it was no surprise that his Wildcats would be in for the tussle for their season Wednesday night in the opening round of the 2018 state tournament at United Wireless Arena.
Sharon Springs held off a late furious rally by Harp’s Wildcats, surviving a 58-54 barnburner finish to advance to Friday’s semifinals against McPherson-Elyria Christian.
For Moscow, which was making only its second-ever trip to the state tournament and first since 1979, it was a heartbreaking way to see its banner season come to an end.
“We got to play a team that plays like us,” Harp said afterward. “They’re all over you, and they’re very tough and they do it all night long.”
The southern Wildcats finish 16-6 while the northern Wildcats, playing in the tough Northwest Kansas League (six teams in state tourneys), improve to 13-11.
After holding a 25-24 halftime lead, most of the third quarter proved to be a nightmare for Harp’s squad, going 6 minutes, 42 seconds without scoring while Sharon Springs scored 14 straight points to go from down one to up 13, 38-25. Justyn Allen’s 3-pointer at 1:18 broke the scoreless spell for Moscow, and he would add a steal and layup at 0:50 for the ‘Cats only points of the period. Sharon Springs got a pair of late free throws at 0:00.5 to make it 40-30 heading to the final quarter.
“If we’d hit some early shots it would have been different,” Harp said of that dreadful third period. “There were a lot of shots that didn’t go in that we’ve made all season long.”
Sharon Springs veteran coach Larry O’Connor said he thought his team wore Moscow down in the second half, and his team’s pressure defense, which had created 12 turnovers in the first half, kept up the harassment in the third period.
After closing to 44-38 with 4:36 left in the game, the Wildcats then fell back again, trailing 50-38 at the 3:04 mark.
But Moscow once again showed its own mettle, getting consecutive 3-pointers from Rafael Granillo and a layup from Justyn Allen at the 2:04 mark to pull within 54-46.
Sharon Springs got a bucket from Carlin Springsteel at 1:45 to go up by 10, but the southern ‘Cats made one final rush.
Kage Allen got a reverse layup and a traditional 3-point play off a made free throw at 1:19, added two more free throws at 0:25 and then after another Sharon Springs miscue, Jalen Shaddix scored on a layup and made free throw with 0:08 remaining, and it was a 56-54 nail-biter.
Then, in what can only be described as a questionable call, an intentional foul was whistled on Moscow’s Javier Marquez at 0:06, sending Seth Johnson to the free-throw line, where he cashed in both charities for a four-point lead. And by rule, the northern Wildcats got to keep possession and simply ran out the remaining few seconds.
“Honestly, I just don’t want to say anything,” Harp said of the late call. “We played a tough opponent that’s pretty good. They’ve been here before, they’ve got the experience and understand how to win.”
And yet Harp, whose squad will return the bulk of its lineup for next year, was proud of his team in the way they battled to the end.
“No quit in these kids,” he said. “They kept battling the entire way. You’re playing their (Sharon Springs) game, and that’s what’s good about playing good teams. They’re tough to play. We haven’t seen many teams as quick as us, and I think at times we relaxed.”
Kage Allen finished with 15 points to lead Moscow's scoring attack. Marquez added 10 for the only other double-figure scorer. Trever Medina had 22 to lead all scorers for Sharon Springs, and also pulled down 10 rebounds for a double-double. Luke Johnson tacked on 10 points for the winners.
Neither team led by more than four points in the opening quarter, with Moscow being the holder of that one, 6-2, early on. By quarter’s end, the teams were knotted at 14.
Thanks to four 3-pointers, three of them by junior Trever Medina, Sharon Springs went up 24-19 in the second at the 3:15 mark. But from there, they hit the scoring wall, and missed a pair of free throws with 1:20 remaining and were 0 for 9 down the stretch of the half.
Moscow’s southern Wildcats, meanwhile, answered with a mini-rally, getting a bucket from Marquez at the 1:34 mark, a turning bank shot by Kage Allen with 0:15 remaining and a pair of free throws from Allen with 0:13 left in the half.
That gave Moscow the slenderest of leads at 25-24 heading into the halftime break.
There were three lead changes and six ties in the first 16 minutes. Sharon Springs hit a chilly 29.6 percent on 8 of 27, including 4 of 16 from behind the arc. Moscow was slightly warmer at 10 of 26 for 38.5 percent, and just 1 of 6 from 3-point range.
Moscow held a 21-15 rebounding advantage at the break.