HAYS — Mark Applegate knew there were still doubters out there.
With Applegate’s South Gray boys basketball team breezing past every opponent it faced this year, some wondered how the Rebels would react once they were finally tested.
But South Gray had no trouble adapting to its first real challenge of the season, advancing to the Class 1A Division I state championship game for the second straight year with a 43-37 victory over St. John on Friday in Gross Memorial Coliseum.
“Everybody said all year, ‘You haven’t had a close game, and when you get up to the state tournament you’re going to play tough competition and you’re going to fold,’ ” Applegate said. “These guys didn’t fold tonight.”
The 25-0 Rebels, who hadn’t played a game closer than 18 points all year, found themselves up just two points at the end of the third quarter. South Gray, aided by a 3-pointer from Clifton Miller early in the fourth quarter, gained separation from St. John down the stretch and put the Tigers away with free throws.
Senior 6-foot-6 forward Gilbert Peters led the Rebels with 16 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks. Junior Austin Jantz and senior Tyler Askew added nine and eight points, respectively.
Peters said it was good for the Rebels to get a test before Saturday’s 6:15 p.m title game, where they will meet Hanover, a 64-63 overtime winner vs. Centralia in the other semifinal. Hanover beat the Rebels in the state championship game a year ago.
“Not to talk down on any other team, but we haven’t had a really close game until now,” Peters said. “I think it was good for us to get at least one (close one) before the championship game. Nobody’s going to come in the championship game and lay down. We just have to keep it going.”
St. John led 10-7 at the end of the first, but South Gray gained control with a 15-7 second quarter to take a 22-17 lead into the break.
“We came out kind of slow, but we put the pieces together,” Peters said. "We picked it up once we got in a rhythm. It was definitely the hardest match-up we’ve had all season.”
South Gray went 13 of 32 from the field and 13 of 18 from the foul line as St. John was 16 of 41 from the floor and 3 of 6 from the stripe.
“I knew St. John was going to come out and get in our face. That’s just the way play,” Applegate said. “They’re a good team. You’ve got to give a lot credit to St. John.”
St. John was led by Chase Fisher’s 15 points, and will play in Saturday's third-place game.