Centre of attention

In their fourth consecutive state appearance, Cougar girls bring home the school?s first state hardware in 43 years

Centre Cougars place third at state tournament with a 2-1 record.  The Centre High School girls? basketball team poses with the third-place trophy it received after defeating St. Paul, 48-44, Saturday at the Class 1A-Div. I state tournament played in White Auditorium at Emporia. After qualifying for the tournament for the fourth consecutive year, the team advanced beyond the opening round for the first time. The trophy the team received was the first team hardware Centre High School had received at state since the 1972-73 team placed second in the very first girls? tournament. Pictured above are: kneeling (from left), Kailynn Riffel, Summer Espinoza, Shelby Pankratz, Brenna Shields and Cassandra Thompson; standing are assistant coach K. Shannon Shields, Shelby Makovec, Callie Riffel, Abigail Svoboda, Nellie Kassebaum, Allison Basore, Lotti Benning and head coach Alan Stahlecker. Don Ratzlaff / Free Press

If you can?t take state, it?s nice to make history.

When the final buzzer confirmed Centre?s 48-44 win over St. Paul Satur?day afternoon in the third-place game of the Class 1A-Div. I tournament in Emporia, this team?s legacy was secure in the annals of Centre High girls? basketball.

This team rose beyond its unprecedented four consecutive state tournament berths to earn the first state hardware awarded to a Centre girls? team since 1973, when the Cougars finished as runners-up in the very first tournament for girls.

Add to that, this is the first CHS girls? team to end a season with a victory.

?It?s at least fantastic, and maybe better than that,? coach Alan Stah?lecker said about the accomplishment. ?I told them in the locker room I?ve enjoyed a lot of things in life, but I?ve never had as much fun as I?ve had in the last 10 days.?

Part of this team?s legacy will be how it won this game. On a day when the Cou?gars shot a tepid 33 percent from the floor, they were white-hot from the free-throw line, nailing 27 of 33 attempts. St. Paul made 10 free throws in only 15 attempts.

Centre players and coaches celebrate their third-place finish after defeating St. Paul, 48-44, Saturday afternoon. Don Ratzlaff / Free Press

?I don?t know that we did anything in particular to try to get to the line,? Stah?lecker said. ?We weren?t shooting the ball from the outside, so I said keep pushing it to the basket. (St. Paul) played hard, aggressive defense, so when those two collide, you?re going to pick up some fouls.?

The sharpest shooter of all was senior standout Shelby Makovec, who was a perfect 14-for-14 for the night and hit 20 of 23 for the tournament.

In this case, practice did make perfect. Makovec said she tries to shoot 20 free throws every day.

?It?s not much, but I can hit them in a game,? she said.

It was clear from the start that these two teams were evenly matched. Centre fell behind 5-1 before Brenna Shields made one of two free throws at the 4:02 mark, sparking a 7-2 surge that put the Cougars on top after one quarter, 8-7, after St. Paul scored in the final second.

The free-throw frenzy began in earnest in the second quarter. Centre out?scored the Indians, 13-8, thanks in large part to eight points at the line from Makovec. Shields and Callie Riffel each contributed a field goal to the Cougars? 21-15 halftime advantage.

St. Paul outscored Centre 12-9 in the third quarter to tighten the margin to 30-27 heading into the final quarter. The Indians? momentum continued at the start when they scored two more baskets and took a 31-30 lead.

Makovec hit a three-pointer at 4:40 to put Centre back on top, but a pair of free throws by St. Paul?s Holly Hutcher?son tied the game at 33 with 4:01 to play.

Four-year starter Shelby Makovec shows the form that led to 14 consecutive-made free throws Saturday. She scored 25 points to pace the Cougars to the victory. Don Ratzlaff / Free PressWhen Makovec hit two free throws with 1:16 to play, Centre enjoyed a 44-39 lead. But Kaetlin O?Brien ignited St. Paul fans when she nailed a three with 1:04 left to pull her team to within two points.

The game took a dire turn when Makovec was called for traveling with 52.6 seconds to play. Moments later, O?Brien launched another three-point shot. This one missed the mark, but she followed her shot and was fouled.

Facing a one-and-one at the line with a chance to tie the game, O?Brien?s first free throw rimmed out?but St. Paul maintained possession when the ball went out of bounds off Centre?s Lotti Benning during the battle for the rebound.

Hutcherson made the most of the moment, hitting a 15-footer along the baseline with 31 seconds left that tied the game at 44.

At the other end, Benn?ing scored on a huge putback with 16 seconds left to give Centre the lead for good.

After St. Paul missed a tying shot, Makovec was fouled with 4.3 seconds left. Fittingly, the senior secured the victory by hitting her 13th and 14th consecutive free throws.

?Experience is what did it for us,? Makovec said of the victory.

Almost lost in her performance at the free-throw line were the 11 points Makovec added from the field, giving her a game-high 25. Nellie Kassebaum and Shields were next in line with five points each.

Stahlecker credited his six seniors for the team?s 22-4 season, including one bye victory at sub-state.

?They?re the group that has been to the state tournament all four years,? he said. ?Only Shelby and Brenna played as freshmen, but the others just gradually came along.

?Those six seniors just worked hard,? he added. ?Their team chemistry is really an important part of why we?ve been able to develop (this season). We had Shelby with a lot of experience, and we had Brenna and Allie who were part of the rotation. Everybody else was inexperienced.

?Right off the bat, we played well. I think a lot of that was that senior cohesiveness. It just kind of helped them stick together.?

Stahlecker also highlighted the one-year contribution of Benning, a 6-foot-2 exchange student who averaged 10 rebounds per game during the tournament and was a defensive force in the lane.

?She hasn?t scored a lot for us this year, but she was critical to what this team accomplished,? he said. ?She played such great defense. Her presence in there affected things.?

Hoxie 64, Centre 37

Semifinals, Friday

It was a lot to hope for. Stepping into the semifinals spotlight for the first time in 42 years was challenging enough. But the Cougars had to share the spotlight with Hoxie, the three-time defending champions who came into the game riding a state-record 93-0 win streak.

Despite the odds, for three quarters of the game, hope had a heartbeat.

The Indians won going away as the game unraveled for Centre in the fourth quarter. But the final score was not indicative of the fight put forward by these Cougars.

Hoxie delivered a haymaker at the start by hitting three three-pointers in the first 2:41 to take a 9-2 lead. The Indians eventually pushed the margin to 19-7 on their fifth three-pointer of the quarter.

But Shelby Pankratz countered with a three and Summer Espinoza added a basket in the paint to keep the Cougars within 21-12 as the quarter ended.

Centre absorbed another blow, partially self-inflicted, in the second quarter. The Cougars made only two of 15 shots for the period. Even so, they stepped up enough to keep Centre teetering on the edge of hope with a halftime deficit of 34-16.

Faithful Cougars fans were rewarded in the third quarter. After Shelby Mako?vec opened with a traditional three-point play, Nellie Kassebaum and Lotti Ben?ning followed with two-point baskets for a 7-0 run.

After a pair of Indian free throws, Allison Basore hit back-to-back baskets to reduce the deficit to single digits at 36-27 with 45 seconds left in the period. A late surge by Hoxie pushed the margin to 49-35, but Centre could claim a 19-15 victory for the third quarter.

Centre?s Lotti Benning drives to the basket against Hoxie during the Cougars 64-37 semifinals loss to the Indians. Hoxie went on to win their fourth consecutive Class 1A-Div. 1 title by winning their state-record 95th consecutive basketball game. Don Ratzlaff / Free Press

Hope died in the final period. The Cougars, perhaps energy depleted, opened the final period with seven turnovers and three missed shots in their first nine possessions. Hoxie made them pay with an 11-0 run that put the game away. The Cougars managed only two points in the final quarter as Hoxie extended its state record to 94 wins.

Makovec led Centre with 13 points but also contributed 10 turnovers to the team?s 23. Hoxie, meanwhile, had three players in double figures: 19 points from Lexi Schamberger, 17 from Ter?ran Hoyt and 14 from Carly Heim. The Indians committed only 10 turnovers.

?I told them I thought we fought hard,? coach Alan Stahlecker said. ?I?m not going to say we challenged them as much as anybody, because I haven?t seen anybody else?s games. But I was pleased with our effort.?

Centre 46, Ingalls 38

Quarterfinals, Wednesday

After three consecutive one-and-done appearances at state, the Centre girls advanced to the second round of the tournament with an eight-point victory over Ingalls.

?It?s incredible,? coach Alan Stahlecker said about advancing. ?After three separate trips with a quick out, we kept getting better. To finally win (a game at state) is exciting.?

It wasn?t easy, though.

The first half was a low-scoring affair, thanks to a mix of good defense, jittery ball-handling and chilly shooting on the part of both teams.

Centre made only two of 15 shots in the first quarter, but still led 6-5 at the end of it. Defen?sively, the Cougars limited the Bulldogs to 2-for-9 shooting while forcing six turnovers.

Centre bumped its lead to 9-5 in the opening minutes of the second quarter with one free throw by Shelby Makovec and two by Allison Basore at the 6:26 mark.

Ingalls then enjoyed its most productive stretch of the game, outscoring Centre 9-0 over the next 3:23 for a 14-9 lead. Centre countered with two free throws by Lotti Benning, a basket by Basore, a free throw from Makovec and a late basket by Espinoza to pull the Cougars to within two points at intermission.

Trailing 18-16 at halftime, the Cougars started the third quarter with renewed spark. Baskets by Brenna Shields and Shelby Pankratz put Centre back on top, 20-18 in the first 1:43. A three-pointer by Shelby Makovec pushed the lead to 23-18. Centre maintained a 27-23 lead as the quarter ended.

The first 2:30 of the final quarter raised the tension level for the strong contingent of Cougar fans as the Bulldogs went on an 8-3 run?fueled by five Centre turnovers?to retake the lead at 31-30 with 6:30 to go.

Following a timeout, the Cougars regrouped. After a basket by each team, Sum?mer Espinoza scored in the paint to give Centre the lead for good, 34-33, with 4:48 to play. The No. 5 seeded Cougars then took control of their destiny with a 10-1 run over the next 4 minutes to secure the victory.

Makovec led the Cougars with 18 points. Espinoza added nine.

?Summer was awesome for us,? Stahlecker said. ?She had some key baskets tonight. Like I told them (in the locker room), everybody did their part. We have a lot of role players.?

As a team, Centre improved its shooting percentage from 16.7 in the first half to 42.3 percent in the second half, to finish with 30 percent accuracy for the game. Ingalls finished with 29.5 percent shooting.

?In the fourth quarter particularly, we played good defense,? Stahlecker said. ?Having Benning in the middle helped us?we can pressure the ball a little bit more.?

If Centre held a significant statistical edge in any category it was rebounds at 43-33. Mako??vec, Basore and Shields each grabbed seven.

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