Playing with a nothing-to-lose attitude, the Concordia Panthers battled fifth-ranked Clay Center to the final seconds before suffering a 58-53 defeat Tuesday night in the Concordia Junior-Senior High School gymnasium.
Concordia had lost two previous meetings to Clay Center by a combined 50 points, but kept it close throughout the third time around.
Trailing by eight points in the fourth quarter, the Panthers fought back to within three, 56-53, when Megan James made two free throws with 13 seconds to play.
Alyx Bloom knocked down a pair of free throws two seconds later, and Clay Center was able to hold on for the win in the final game of the regular season.
“We had talked about how we hadn’t had a very good home game for a while. We wanted to go out and put on a good game,” Concordia coach Michael Wahlmeier said, “I felt like they gave our seniors, our team, their best effort.”
The two teams will meet for a fourth time in the opening round of the Class 4A sub-state tournament in Clay Center on Tuesday night.
Clay Center (17-3) is the number two seed, and Concordia (3-17) is the number seven seed.
Concordia scored first in the game when Nikki Blankenbeckley hit a three-point shot, but Clay Center went on an 11-2 run to go up 11-5.
The Panthers limited the Tigers to just two points over the final 3:18 of the first quarter, and scored four, including a steal and layup by Tristen Leiszler as time ran out, to close the gap to 14-9.
Trailing 16-11, Concordia got a three-point shot by Leiszler and a layup by Blankenbeckley to tie the game at 16-16.
Clay Center would reclaim the lead at 23-19.
Blankenbeckley followed up a missed shot, and Katie Lambert pulled down an offensive rebound and scored.
Lambert was fouled, and made the free throw to give Concordia a 24-23 advantage with 27 seconds to play in the first half.
“She got some put backs and got an and one,” Wahlmeier said of Lambert, who came off the bench to score seven points and grab eight rebounds.
Bloom, who led all scorers with 21 points, was fouled with 1.9 seconds on the clock. She made both free throws to put the Tigers back up 25-24.
Clay Center opened the second half with an 11-4 spurt to push the lead to eight points, 36-28.
Five straight points by Leiszler and a follow by Lambert got the Panthers back within a point, 36-35.
Leiszler, with 12 points, was one of three Panthers to score in double figures.
Clay Center outscored Concordia 6-2 in a span of 1:52, and led 42-37 heading into the final period.
The Panthers trailed 53-45 when they made one final run at the Tigers.
Molly Adams scored inside to get things started.
Adams led the way for the Panthers with 13 points and seven rebounds.
“I thought a big part of why we were in it was Molly inside,” Wahlmeier said.
Bloom made one of two free throws to put Clay Center up 54-47 wih 45 seconds on the clock.
Leiszler hit from 15 feet 11 seconds later, and it was 54-49.
Two free throws by Alyssa Steppe with 24 seconds left made it a 56-49 game.
Adams grabbed an offensive rebound and scored, and Concordia came up with a steal.
James drew a foul with 13 seconds left, and made both free throws to make it a one possession game, 56-53.
Two free throws by Bloom two seconds later gave the Tigers a 58-53 cushion, and the Panthers would not score after that.
“The girls are learning they can play with some of the best teams in a our League,” Wahlmeier said.
James matched Leiszler with 12 points and also had four rebounds, four assists and three steals.
Macy Franson scored 11 points for Clay Center.
CLAY CENTER (58)
Franson 5-0-2 11, Cooper 2-0-1 4, Folks 1-0-0 2, Steppe 3-2-2 9, Bloom 6-7-1 21, Edmunson 2-1-1 5, Ebert 0-0-1 0, Dieckmann 2-2-5 6. Totals: 21-12-13 58.
K. Lambert 3-1-2 7, M. Lambert 1-0-2 2, Adams 6-1-4 13, Blankenbeckley 3-0-3 7, Leiszler 4-2-3 12, James 4-4-2 12. Totals: 21-8-16 53.