EMPORIA — There are no easy roads to defending a state championship.
Just ask the Holcomb Longhorns.
After trailing by as many as 13 points in the first half of Friday night’s Class 4A-II semifinal against Parsons, the Longhorns used a furious rally in the early minutes of the third period to tie the game, then motor in front by as many as 13 points, the last at 63-50 with 2:43 left in the game, before withstanding a furious comeback by the Vikings and survive for a 66-62 triumph.
The victory keeps the No. 1-seed champions alive for a third state title in the past four seasons, and they will pursue that goal at 6:15 p.m. Saturday in White Auditorium against a newly-minted Topeka-Hayden (17-7) team that knocked off Andale, 65-55, in the earlier semifinal.
Those same teams met in the 2017 semis on the same floor, when Holcomb rallied from a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter to capture a dramatic 73-69 overtime decision over the Wildcats.
But for a few exhausting moments after the roller-coaster win over Parsons, both Longhorn senior center Kobe Dickson (19 points, 18 rebounds) and his coach, Chad Novack, were just relieved to get the win and advance to the title game once again.
“The first half, we just kind of went through the motions,” Dickson said. “The second half we came out with high energy, and when we do that we can play with most anybody.”
That high energy translated into going from down 33-25 at intermission to tying the game at 35 just 91 seconds into the third quarter.
Zeke Leyva was the catalyst in that stretch, knocking down a pair of deep 3s to pull the Longhorns even.
“Zeke had a heckuva second half for us, and that’s something we needed,” Novack said. “When we start shooting with confidence we’re a much better ball club getting the ball inside too.”
Leyva would hit one more trey and a 2-pointer in the third period, when the Longhorns exploded for 23 points while their defense tightened their boot straps and limited the run-and-gun Vikes to just 11 points.
That produced a 48-44 Holcomb lead heading to the final quarter, and when Leyva hit another 3-pointer to start the fourth and Trey Gilbert a running floater, the Longhorns were up 53-44 with 6:45 remaining.
Davonte Yates knocked down a trey for Parsons to make it 55-48 with 5:24 left, and then the Longhorns went on an 8-2 run to move out to that 13-point advantage with just less than three minutes to play.
It had all the makings of a double-digit victory, but Parsons had one final surge to make it interesting.
The free-throw line proved to be the Achilles' heel for the Longhorns in this game, finishing 15 of 30 at the stripe, including an ice-cold 7 of 18 in the fourth. It was even chillier down the stretch run, when they were only 3 of 12.
The Vikes got a pair of free throws at 2:15, a basket by Yates at 1:40, a deep 3 from Williams at 1:30 and another big long-range trey from Joel Schibi with 1:01 remaining to make it 64-60.
Garrett Williams made 1 of 2 free throws at the 0:46 mark, before Williams nailed a bucket with 31 seconds on the clock, cutting the Holcomb lead to 65-62. Dickson made 1 of 2 at the line with 0:12 remaining to make it a two-possession game, and the Vikes could not get any of their two last attempts to fall at the end.
“No doubt, the free throws have to be better,” Novack said. “I think when we missed the first couple, the kids started pressing. And when you’re hoping for free throws to go in, they’re not going to.”
As has been the case for much of the past few seasons, and certainly this season when some areas of the Longhorns game has suffered, they went back to their tried and true strengths — defense and rebounding.
Parsons finished hitting just 23-of-60 shots (38.3 percent) and Holcomb finished with a stunning 52-27 rebounding advantage, with Paden Cornelson adding 13 to Dickson’s 18.
Leyva finished with 14 points while Gilbert added 11. Dariq Williams paced Parsons with 19 points, DaQuan Johnson added 16 and Yates contributed 11.
“Our problems started out early as we didn’t value the ball on offense and had too many turnovers (16, but only four in the second half),” Novack said. “We took much better care of the ball in the second half, and the adjustments we made with our defense worked.”
Novack said he and his team are excited to play Hayden for the championship, something his players echoed in the locker room in the immediate aftermath of their semifinal win.
“It’s what everybody has wanted, and I’m sure Hayden wanted to play us,” Novack said. “It’s two excellent teams, and we’ll both be prepared. We had a great game with them last year, and if you’re a basketball fan, you should hop in your car and come to Emporia for the game. It should be a dandy.”