Sterling’s Aubree Nuest sealed a hard-fought 58-54 substate championship victory over Central Plains that avenged last year’s season-ending loss to the Oilers.
Her free throws with 19 seconds left boosted Sterling into the Class 2A state tournament at Manhattan’s Bramlage Coliseum. Sterling (20-3) plays Belleville-Republic County at 8:15 p.m. Thursday in the first round.
“I’d never been in that situation this year, but I felt confident because we work on free throws every day,” Nuest said. “It was a battle out there. We had a great team effort tonight.”
Sterling erased a 46-40 deficit by outscoring the Oilers 18-8 in the final seven minutes after Jennifer Hitschmann and Reagan Phelan scored Oiler baskets.
The comeback was similar to Sterling’s 66-56 victory over Central Plains in the Hilltop Classic Hoops at Great Bend. It marked Sterling's first trip to the state basketball tournament since 1999.
“It was gratifying to see the girls battle like that for a victory,” said Sterling coach Jill Rowland, who celebrated her first state trip. “It was everyone contributing and doing all the little things right at the end. We hustled for rebounds and worked as a team. I give a lot of credit to Central Plains for a great ballgame tonight.”
Sterling's victory avenged a 55-53 setback to Central Plains in last year's substate championship
The championship game featured seven lead changes and eight ties.
Chelsey Riffel ignited Sterling’s rally on a 3-point play. Riffel also scored inside to go with Dani Dowell’s rebound basket for a 47-47 tie. Nuest’s assist to Dani Dowell’s 3-pointer led to a 50-47 lead.
Central Plains quickly regained the momentum. Hitschmann scored two free throws and Katie Hipp dished back-to-back assists to Janae Hekele for a 3-pointer and a score by Taylor Rolfs for a 54-53 Oiler lead.
Nuest's pressure defense on Reagan Phelan forced a turnover. Sterling freshman Kylah Comley made the game’s key play with a steal and fast-break bank shot for a 55-54 lead with 1:05 left. Comley added a free throw for a 56-54 lead.
Hipp attempted a guarded baseline shot in traffic under the goal that didn’t drop on the Oilers’ final attempt to tie. Nuest followed with her clinching free throws.
Comley led the Black Bears with 19 points plus her usual sparkling floor game. Lydia Lambert scored 10 points and Riffel added nine points.
The Black Bears knocked down six 3-pointers to outscore the Oilers 18-9 from long range. Sterling outscored the Oilers 12-5 from the free throw line. The Black Bears made 20 of 46 field goals.
“At times, I felt Central Plains had the upper hand, but our girls kept battling,” Rowland said. “It was an awfully good victory tonight for the girls. Our league has prepared us well for that type of ballgame. We played seven teams that played for substate championships this year.”
Jennifer Hitschmann led the Oilers with 17 points off 7 of 10 shooting. Katie Hipp played superbly with 13 points and 14 rebounds. Janae Hekele added 11 points. The Oilers made 23 of 51 field goals, three more than Sterling. The Oilers dominated the boards 35-26.
“That was a battle, just like we expected,” said Pat Stiles, Central Plains coach. “It was a great effort by our girls. Our girls fought awfully hard. That’s one you’d love to come out ahead in.”
Sterling showed off man-to-man, zone and several looks pressure looks that forced 23 Central Plains turnovers. Stiles said the turnovers were the difference in the outcome.
“We had several unforced errors that hurt us,” Stiles said. “It was a back-and-forth type of game. We lost to an awfully good Sterling team.”