WAKEENEY, Kan. - Wallace County-Sharon Springs boys’ basketball coach Larry O’Connor has captured four state titles with a fast-paced pressing style and a high number of 3-point shots. On Feb. 7, Sharon Springs defeated St. Francis by three points in a road overtime Northwest Kansas League contest.
Three weeks later, the squads matched up again in the Class 1A sub-state semifinals at WaKeeney-Trego Community High School. For the first time all winter, O’Connor decided to not press.
The tactic helped the Wildcats score the game’s first seven points and cruise to a 63-40 victory Friday. O’Connor said it was “real hard” to not press, but the half court defense nearly halved the Indians’ offense from the first meeting, a 77-74 Wildcat victory. O’Connor reminded his assistant to keep telling him, “no press, no press, no press.”
“They hurt us down at their place on the press,” O’Connor said. “They had a good press offense, so we came out not pressing, and intending to press later on, but it worked so well, just playing half court guarding up the floor that we just stuck with it. That’s kind of the difference.”
Wallace County improved to 21-2, while St. Francis ended a strong year at 16-8 after it graduated Tate Busse, the school’s all-time leading scorer and currently a redshirt freshman on the Wichita State basketball team.
The Wildcats will face Central Plains (24-0) in Saturday’s sub-state title game. CP, including a bye this season, has won 50 straight contests after a 2A title last year.
“They are the best team in the state,” O’Connor said. “You want to be the best team, you have got to beat the best team. We are up for the challenge. You know, it could get ugly. I don’t know what the score is going to be, but we are going to show up, and we are going to play. We are going to play as hard as we can play.”
Both squads had changed personnel from the first meeting. Wallace County missed a starter in the overtime win and was at increased strength Friday. SF’s 6-foot-3 sophomore Jesse Baxter has been bothered by severe back problems in the last 10 days. A key scorer, Baxter missed a full week of practice. He played Friday but was limited.
As well, senior Connor Keller, a key ball handler who averages double figures, missed the contest because of family reasons. St. Francis finished 19 of 52 (37 percent) from the field, including 0 of 10 from beyond the arc.
“We are just not a very deep team at all,” coach Cory Busse said. “And that hurt us bad, just handling the ball and turnovers, and then it was just one of those nights where we just couldn’t buy a bucket, and they just flat out beat us. I don’t make any excuses at all.”
Overall, Wallace County had seven treys and received 18 points from junior Cody Seader. He also took three charges, a key improvement throughout the winter for the Wildcats.
“It’s a fast pace, get a lot of work done, we are in shape, but I think we are in shape more than any team around, so we can just outrun them, and that’s how we win games,” Seader said.
Seader started the game with a trey, and then senior Trever Medina drew a foul and made both free throws.
“We pressed them last game, and they pressed us,” Busse said. “And we both got turnovers off of it, and we both got layups off of it, and I am sure Coach and I were thinking probably about the same thing. It kind of evened out, and we are going to save our energy.”
Medina averages around 25 points a contest and is by far the school’s all-time leading scorer with approximately 1,300 points. Earlier this season, he became the first Wildcat boy to clear 1,000 career points.
O’Connor’s first two titles came at Brewster in the early 2000s and had squads that set several state records. O’Connor said Medina is “right up there” with the best offensive players he has ever coached. Medina tallied 11 points and 11 rebounds.
Medina picked up his third foul and exited the game with 3 minutes, 53 seconds left in the second quarter and Wallace County leading 19-12. Still, the Wildcats extended the lead to 33-18 at halftime.
“Medina didn’t have the game that he usually has, so that’s kind of inspiring that we put up 60-some points without him scoring much,” O’Connor said.
Seader and senior Andrew Noone hit 3s and senior Luke Johnson (17 points) made four free throws to close out the second quarter. Wallace County went 12 of 16 from the line and often drove inside. St. Francis, especially in the first half, shot a high number of jumpers.
“Coach had a game plan to get to the paint, get a lot of paint touches, and that’s what we did, executed,” Seader said.
Overall, SF was 2 of 9 from the foul line. Defensively, Wallace County kept their big men in the middle, which clogged the lanes and kept junior Brady Dinkel from driving. He finished with 14 points.
“I think you can boil it all down to the fact that we just did not make shots,” Busse said. “We just didn’t make buckets, and part of it was because they were playing really good defense on us.”
After the Christmas break, senior Esteban Rodriguez had 14 charges and no other Wildcat had any. WC took a couple days of practice, put down a mat and worked on taking charges for about half an hour.
“It kind of got to be a challenging thing for them,” O’Connor said. “…Esteban showed us how he does it, because he sells it really well.”
Rodriguez has 22 charges this year. He has taken more charges than scored points and has the most charges of anyone in O’Connor’s coaching career. Rodriguez is five away from the state record for single season charges set by Salina South’s Austin Jensen in 2017, according to the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame.
Since the practices, O’Connor believes the team has taken “35, 36” charges.
Seader took his first charge with Wallace County ahead 7-4 with four minutes left in the first quarter. He had another one with 4:02 remaining in the first half and WC up 37-25. The last time occurred with the Wildcats ahead 47-28 with 6:50 left.
“I just follow his lead,” Seader said. “We just set our feet, wait till they hit us and fall back, just hope for the best.”