HAYS, Kan. - On Jan. 5, 2018, Liberal girls lost by seven points at Hays High in its Western Athletic Conference season opener. It marked the only time Liberal dropped a regular season game last season.
This year, the Redskins returned 81 percent of its scoring from a 23-2 squad that included its all-state juniors, point guard Katie Horyna and post Machia Mullens. Hays High brought back seven players with starting experience from a 13-win team.
On Friday, Liberal had its first trip to Hays since last season’s loss. In a contest that had similar personnel to last winter, the Redskins showcased their significant improvement in a big 55-34 victory.
“We have kids that want to be really good basketball players, they want to be on a really good team, and they are tough-minded kids who, really, I guess they allow themselves to be coached,” Liberal fourth-year coach Carter Kruger said. “They allow themselves to learn, and the growth that they have shown over the season has really made me proud.
“I mean, it almost brings tears to my eyes, just because of the fact that our kids are truly a family, and we really love each other,” he added.
The Redskins led 17-2 after the first quarter and by 26 entering in the fourth in a game that featured a late running clock. Hays High ended the contest on an 11-2 run against Liberal’s backups. Indian senior Savannah Schneider delivered a game-high 17 points.
“We kind of needed to redeem our self from last year,” junior Machia Mullens said. “We definitely did tonight.”
Liberal, ranked second in 6A, remained perfect at 15-0 and 4-0 in the WAC. Hays High, No. 10 in Class 5A, dropped to 11-5, 4-2 in league play. The Redskins and top-ranked Derby remain the lone Class 6A undefeated squads.
“I wouldn’t have expected this,” Kruger said. “I knew we’d be good. I didn’t know that we’d be playing at the level that we are, and that’s a credit to those kids and those families who have invested a ton of time into basketball.”
Liberal swept the season series from HHS after a 61-42 home victory on Jan. 4. Including a 7-1 ending to the 2016-17 season, the Redskins are 45-3.
When lone seniors Whitney Hay and Kim Alarcon were in eighth grade, the varsity captured just four wins. Many of the key varsity players, including Mullens and Horyna, have played together since third grade.
“Throughout the whole four years, it’s been overall bittersweet,” Hay said. “I have developed so many relationships with family members, teammates and all the coaches in the program that it will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
On a per-possession basis, the ’17-18 Redskins averaged .871 points per contest and allowed .579. Liberal turned the ball over on 24.5 percent of possessions and collected 28 percent of available offensive rebounds.
This year, the Redskins have improved in all those categories, which is challenging for an already elite program.
Entering Friday, the biggest jumps have come in offensive efficiency – 1.01 points per possession – and offensive rebounding rate (34.7 percent). Versus HHS, Liberal held a 10-2 edge on the glass in the first quarter and was plus-15 for the game.
Among others, Horyna, Mullens and Hay, a Bethany College signee, have all seen improvements from last winter, a year that featured Liberal girls’ first state tournament wins since 1987.
“We kind of came in on a mission this year,” Kruger said. “And the best part is, our team, our individuals have improved quite a bit from last year, so while we are the same group, we are definitely not the same team, and just goes to show all that work that they put in the summer, and playing with the summer league teams.”
In the first quarter, Hays High shot 1 of 11, and Liberal blocked four shots. Hays High had its lowest point total and worst margin of loss this year.
“They did a great job of being really solid defensively,” first-year Hays High coach Alex Hutchins said. “And being physical, and we didn’t do as well a job handling their physicality and being able to still attack like we wanted to. And so hats off to their defense, because I felt like if we would have got a couple shots here or there early on, it would have kind of energized our defense.”
“And so just the fact that we were unable to get the ball to go into the hole, it took a little bit of the wind out of our sails, and we weren’t able to fly around as much defensively as we would have liked,” he added.
Mullens tallied the game’s first seven points and sunk her first three shots. In the first quarter, she also collected four rebounds, two assists, two blocked shots and a steal. Overall, she delivered 12 points and nine rebounds.
“A huge emphasis for us coming into the game was just guarding the basketball,” Kruger said. “It’s not any one player that guards the ball, it’s the entire team. You have got to have five kids that are ready to help and ready to help the helper, and I thought we did that really well tonight.”
Mullens opened the scoring with a blocked shot and grabbed the defensive rebound. On the offensive end, Hay found Mullens for the basket at the 6 minute, 35 second mark.
“I was just thinking that we need to start off really good,” Mullens said. “Because I know that they were going to bring it, so the faster we put the ball in the hole the better chance we have of keeping a lead and holding it throughout the game.”
Later, Horyna passed to Mullens at the high post for a 4-0 lead. Horyna tallied 12 points with five assists and four rebounds.
“We are definitely the dynamic duo,” Mullens said.
Then, Hay found Mullens for a trey, her seventh this winter and tenth of her career. Hays High called a timeout, but after an Indian basket, Liberal tallied the quarter’s last 10 points and forced HHS into many difficult looks, especially down low.
Additionally, Liberal contained Hays High junior sharpshooter Brooke Denning, who made a long 3 in the first matchup. HHS finished 10 of 39 shooting (26 percent) and 0 of 7 from long range versus the Redskins’ suffocating defense.
“They have grown a lot,” Hutchins said. “I think every girl on their team knows her role and plays her role to a T. They have got two just absolute studs, but everyone around them, they don’t really make mistakes.
“They fill the gaps and fill the cracks, and it’s a really, really solid foundation that they have, and it’s no surprise that they win like they do,” he added. “Because when they all play together like they do, even when someone has an off night, everyone else kind of picks them up, and so it’s impressive to watch.”
Mullens assisted on a basket from junior Reagan Watt for a 9-2 advantage. Horyna, a right-handed shooter who can dribble equally well with both hands, flew down the middle for a left-handed layup and 11-2 lead.
Hay followed with a score off a Mullens’ assist for a 13-2 advantage. Hay led with 13 points, a season-best and one off her career high. She had two big treys midway through the third quarter.
Both shots, within 45 seconds, came off Horyna passes in the same spot on the left side. She added another 3 early in the fourth. Liberal led 28-10 at halftime and 45-19 entering the final quarter.
Hay, a four-year varsity player, is shooting 40 percent on treys, the best mark of her career. In the Hays High loss last year, Hay went 0 of 5 shooting. Kruger labeled Hay’s improvement with shooting and defense “outstanding.”
“I have changed my form quite a few times, and I think it comes from just the mental state of just shooting, just keep on shooting,” Hay said. “Get in the gym, but also once you miss, you have to keep shooting no matter what.”