Liberal girls dominate on defense in win over Hays

Liberal defeated Hays High 53-29 on Saturday, January 11, 2020. (Photo: Everett Royer,
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HAYS, Kan. - Liberal features two well-known NCAA Division I senior signees with point guard Katie Horyna and post Machia Mullens. Horyna has inked with Abilene Christian, and Mullens at University of Missouri-Kansas City. However, Hays High coach Kyle Porter believes Liberal’s supporting cast alone can help the Redskins perform at a high level.

Liberal, ranked No. 2 in Class 6A, again received strong performances from Mullens and Horyna in Saturday’s 53-29 victory at Hays High. Liberal kept the Indians without a field goal in the first quarter and had a running clock for most of the fourth. Hays High had a season low for points.

“The role players I think are what will continue to make them a really, really good team,” Porter said. “I think if you take away Mullens and Horyna – if you tried to – those other girls can pick up the slack.”

The Redskins delivered solid games from junior Aubrey Warden, sophomore Ashley Carrillo, seniors Audrey Gilmore and Reagan Watt and junior Reece Hay. Liberal improved to 7-0, 2-0 in Western Athletic Conference play.

Hays High dropped to 1-5, 0-1 and has lost five in a row. Liberal forced 18 turnovers, finished plus-10 on the glass, and held HHS to 28 percent shooting, including 0 of 6 from 3-point range.

“It was one of the first games our defense really came together,” Warden said. “And we really communicated, and worked together on the defensive end, and I feel like that translated to the offensive end and helped us score.”

The all-around talent has helped Liberal stay consistent, especially defensively, with multiple quality opponents and extremely long road trips through the first third of the winter.

“Those two obviously get a lot of much deserved mention,” fifth-year Liberal coach Carter Kruger said of Horyna and Mullens. “But we are really a deep basketball team, and I thought Aubrey and Ashley came out and played really well, and I thought Audrey Gilmore played extremely hard and extremely well on both ends.”

Liberal, the three-time defending league champions, has captured 17 straight conference contests. The team’s last league loss came at Hays High on Jan. 5, 2018. As well, the Redskins have won 17 in a row on the road, including five this winter. Liberal is 80-18 with Kruger.

“We just try to keep them energized, and excited,” Kruger said. “It is nice to get home and play, but on the road is where we have had some our biggest wins in my tenure here at Liberal, and our kids kind of relish that opportunity.”

Liberal’s first six opponents all have .500 or better records. The Redskins have won every game by double figures. In each contest, Liberal has held the opponent to either its season low and/or at least 11 points under its scoring average in games when it doesn’t play the Redskins.

“No matter the skill the other team has, we just want to go dominate every game and just play our game,” Warden said.

Liberal is used to three-to four-hour drives to games in school play and summer, but this year has brought some different challenges.

Notably, Liberal made the one-way 382-mile road trip east to face Olathe West on Dec. 13, an extremely long trek. Both teams needed a game to fill its schedule. OW features standout guard Bailey Collar. Liberal won 55-37. OW, currently 5-2, has tallied 48 points a contest in its other games.

“I wanted us to go get a good, tough road test,” Kruger said. “and I knew that making that long drive, and then playing against a quality team, a Kansas City team that’s going to have really good players, I knew that that would be a really good test for us. Our kids, really we kind of showed what we can do in that second half of that game. We really stepped up and played well.”

On Dec. 19, Liberal won at Dodge City, 54-41, in its conference opener, a very rare pre-Christmas WAC game. The two-loss Red Demons are ranked ninth in 6A at 5-2. DC has tallied 59 points a contest when not playing Liberal.

“A lot of it goes into the preparation,” Kruger said. “Our kids, they have taken practice seriously when it comes down to game planning the other team.”

On Jan. 3, Liberal went to Hooker, Okla. in front of a big crowd and picked up a 40-23 victory. It marked the first time Liberal played at Hooker since Hooker constructed its gym in ’96, according to Redskin broadcaster Brock Kappelmann.

Saturday’s contest moved back a day because of weather, and yielded 186 miles one-way for the Redskins.

“Road trips are hard,” Warden said. “Because it’s hard to come off the bus, and just be ready to play. But I think as a team, we have a lot of personalities, so we know how to get each other up, and get each other ready to go, and that’s key to coming out and playing well.”

Warden credited Horyna for being a leader. Horyna averages 14 points a game, and Mullens is at 13 points and eight rebounds a contest. On Saturday, Horyna finished with a game-high 17 points, along with five rebounds, three assists and two steals. Mullens collected a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds, along with a pair of steals.

“Katie has definitely stepped into that role this season since we lost some seniors that were key to being the voice of the team,” Warden said. “I think she is probably what brings us together the most. That’s been good for us.”

Warden and Gilmore were returning starters. Warden delivered 6.1 points and 5.4 rebounds in ’18-19. She has upped to nine points a contest this year. Versus HHS, she delivered 11 points, eight rebounds, two steals and two assists.

“I spent more time in the gym this summer, working on my game, and I worked more on ballhandling and trying to get my shot better,” Warden said. “Also, dominating in the post, using my strength to my advantage.”

Carrillo missed last season with a knee injury and has emerged as a starter this winter. Carrillo said had “been struggling” on her defense. Kruger gave her a couple reminders.

“Slide your feet, no reach ins, move,” Carrillo said.

Liberal jumped out to a 12-1 lead by the 3 minute, 44 second mark of the first quarter. Horyna had eight points, and Warden four in run. Warden scored off an offensive rebound and a jumper.

“(Carrillo) provides another dimension, the ability to attack,” Porter said. “Off the dribble, she is a nice catch and shoot player as well. I thought the Hay girl when her feet are set, she has got an open look, can cash them. And then Warden is kind of a do it all junk yard dog-type kid. She gets offensive rebounds. She can hit a jumper, but she can also attack you off the bounce, too.”

The Redskins continued forced Hays High into guarded shots, especially inside. Early on, Warden and Carrillo guarded HHS senior standout Tasiah Nunnery for a depleted Indian squad that now has just two seniors.

Hays High senior guard Brooke Denning, known for her shooting ability, left the team. HHS had a team-best 11 from Nunnery, though she did not make a field goal in the first half.

Hays High’s first made shot came on a turnaround from sophomore Aleyia Ruder with 6 minutes, 13 seconds left in the first half. HHS was 2 of 21 shooting at halftime.

“If we play teams that we know are going to pound it inside then we will try to take that away a little bit more,” Kruger said. “We knew Hays had some kids who could kind of spread you out, and they had some good guards that could knock shots down, so our focus was not to leave any open shooters. We did a nice job for the most part.”

Liberal defeated Hays High 53-29 on Saturday, January 11, 2020. (Photo: Everett Royer,