INMAN, Kan. - Sterling coach Derek Schneider knows a little about state championship basketball. In 2012 as a relative newcomer, he led his Black Bears to the Class 2A championship. His team is headed back after a 43-37 win against Ellinwood in Saturday's Class 2A substate championship game.
"We just have a great group of seniors who lead us," Schneider said. "I think tonight they pulled through, along with (junior Tyus Wilson). Two nights in a row, Cade Wilkey's defense was the answer. Two nights in a row, his defense on their best player was the decisive factor."
Ellinwood entered the game looking for its first state tournament berth in 36 years. Sterling jumped out to a 7-0 lead before the top-seeded Eagles answered with a 9-0 run to lead 11-9 after one quarter.
Then the proverbial wheel fell off in the second quarter. Ellinwood went without a point for some six minutes before freshman Britton Dutton made a free throw. He added the lone Eagle field goal of the second quarter 90 seconds later.
On the other end, the state's best high jumper did what high jumpers do. He blocked shots, rebounded, and sometimes scored. He showed some range in the first quarter with a 3-pointer but took off in the second quarter with seven of his 13 points. He ended his night with 13 points, 14 rebound, and three blocks.
"I don't know if you call it a tool or advantage that no one has," Schneider said. "You don’t come it very often. It's hard to score when he's protecting the rim all night."
Ellinwood never could catch a break. Senior David Hammeke picked up a fourth personal foul less than a minute into the second half, then Dutton went down with an ankle injury a minute later. Eagle coach Derek Joiner had to do without his top-two scorers on the floor. Brady Myers and Caden Bressler hit threes on the Sterling end to keep the Black Bears ahead 33-24 with eight minutes to go.
Ellinwood did make some final runs late. Both Dutton and Hammeke scored early in the fourth to whittle the gap to 33-28 with 5:30 to play. The Sterling lead was six points with just over two minutes to play when Joiner and Hammeke received technical fouls. The senior Myers made two of the four free throws, then made up for the miss with a drive to the rim to all but seal the game with 1:45 remaining. He scored eight of his 13 points in the fourth quarter.
"He's just a great leader for us," Schneider said. "He keeps us calm and keeps us in the right stuff. He's just that person we can always look to for toughness."
Dutton capped a brilliant freshman season with a game-high 16 points. Hammeke added nine points for the Eagles in limited court time. Ellinwood ends a breakout season at 17-6.
Bressler scored seven points for the Black Bears, and Logan Weigel added six points. Sterling takes a 17-4 record to Manhattan.