Salina Central shows athleticism, earns 10th win

Salina Central defeated Hays High 64-43 in Hays on Friday, January 29, 2021.  (Photo: Everett...
Salina Central defeated Hays High 64-43 in Hays on Friday, January 29, 2021. (Photo: Everett Royer, J Royer)
Published: Jan. 30, 2021 at 1:59 AM CST
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HAYS, Kan. (Catch it Kansas) - Last season, Salina Central girls finished 15-6. The Mustangs averaged 52 points per game, along with 10 assists and eight steals a contest. SC shot 37 percent from the field and 28 percent from beyond the arc.

Salina Central returned 86 percent of its scoring. SC is well-known for its Division I junior tandem of Aubrie Kierscht and Hampton Williams. However, sophomore point guard Mykayla Cunnigham has quickly emerged with elite athleticism and defense. Junior Chaliscia Samilton is a strong post, and junior Landry Stewart has increased her role.

Plus, the Mustangs are playing at a higher pace compared to last winter.

Salina Central’s all-around athletic ability and fast breaking yielded an impressive 64-43 road win against Hays High on Friday.

“You get more possessions in the game, I like our chances,” Central coach Chris Fear said. “And we want to get some easy baskets, and I think we actually got quite a few of those tonight.”

Salina Central, ranked fifth in Class 5A, improved to 10-2. Ninety-nine percent of the team’s scoring comes from non-seniors. SC has improved across the board.  The Mustangs have upped to 59 points a contest. Before Friday, Central had 12 steals and 11 assists a game. The Mustangs have shot 45 percent from the field and 39 percent on treys.

No. 1-ranked Andover Central and Salina Central rank first and second in the classification in scoring offense among teams that have played more than one game, according to KSHSAA standings. Hays High dropped to 4-9 and has faced 5A’s hardest strength of schedule.

“We want to run,” Fear said. “We want to be in transition. I think that’s when we are at our best.”

On Dec. 17, Andover Central beat SC, 60-52. The rematch is next Friday in Salina. AC is 10-0 and has captured 31 straight wins.

“We have so much motivation this year,” Kierscht said. “We want that state championship, and we will do whatever it takes to get that state championship, so we know we got to put in the work.”

Salina Central bounced back from its 60-58 buzzer-beater loss to Liberal in the Salina Invitational championship game last Saturday. Liberal threw a long pass and banked in a shot at the buzzer. Salina Central had come back from 16 points down. Fear labeled the squad “heartbroken” after the loss, though SC had a good week of practice this week.

“We really focused some things offensively, moving the ball, getting it inside,” Fear said.

Kierscht, a Navy commit, has averaged 20 points a game and has tallied 932 points in her career. Long known for her 3-point shooting, Kierscht has developed an impressive arsenal of moves. Versus Hays High, she scored multiple times off floaters. Kierscht used her dribble to create separation and space. She has improved at finishing with her left hand.

“It’s not necessarily things that you would teach, but she just works at them so much that she’s really good at them,” Fear said.

Multiple times, Kierscht was well ahead of HHS’ defense on the fast break and delivered wide-open layups. She finished with 28 points. Central forced 18 turnovers and limited HHS to 33 percent shooting. The Mustangs shot 49 percent.

“Guarding them was going to be a tough chore,” HHS coach Len Melvin said. “I thought we played a pretty good first half.”

Often, Hays High sophomore point guard Carly Lang face guarded Kierscht, especially early. Lang earned HHS’ player of the game award for nine points, four rebounds and her overall tenacity.

“We talk about it all the time – first three steps, and so it’s really kind of the anticipation,” Fear said. “As soon as we get it, we want to be flying down the floor. I mean, that’s a point of emphasis for us. And Aubrie does it really well.”

The 5-foot-9, long-armed Cunningham is second on the squad with 13 points a game and paced with four assists and three steals. Cunningham has been a standout defender since her younger days.

“When I am out there, I just think hard, and play aggressive,” Cunningham said. “I want our team to score, so it’s defense, and then we go straight to offense and push the ball.”

She tallied four points, four rebounds, three assists and seven steals. Cunningham forced two other turnovers and tallied a deflection.

“Mykayla is a great defender,” Fear said. “Fantastic athlete, and then to go along with it, she has really good instincts and…long arms. She is going to do a whole bunch of everything for us. She is going to defend. She is going to rebound. Runs our team. I think people are starting to see what a really good player she is, and she is emerging here as a sophomore.”

Central led 19-15 after the first quarter. Early in the second, Cunningham blocked a shot, grabbed the defensive rebound, and found Kierscht for a three-point play.

Later in the quarter, Williams delivered a steal and passed up to Kierscht. Williams, who has committed to Abilene Christian, led SC with eight rebounds. The Mustangs led 33-23 at halftime and 49-29 after three quarters.

“Offensively, Cunningham is the catalyst for everything they do,” Melvin said. “She’s dribbling and kicking, and then finding open shooters. But defensively,…she’s long, she’s quick, she’s athletic.”

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