The Concordia Panthers won more than twice as many games this season as they had the previous two seasons combined, but fell one victory short of getting where they want to be.
After winning just five games in two years, Concordia went 13-7 during the regular season and knocked off Smoky Valley in the opening round of the Class 4A-Division II sub-state tournament.
Needing one more win to advance to the state tournament, the top-seeded Panthers fell 48-40 to the second-seeded Clay Center Tigers in the sub-state championship game Saturday night in the Concordia Junior-Senior High School gymnasium.
“That is what we talked about after the game, eventually they are going to realize what they accomplished this year. We won 10 more games than last year. Each year the seniors have raised the bar higher and higher,” Concordia coach Michael Wahlmeier said.
Clay Center (8-14) advances to the state tournament at Hartman Arena in Park City.
Concordia finishes the season at 14-8.
The Panthers and Tigers had split a pair of North Central Kansas League games with each winning on the other’s home floor.
Concordia did not trail by more than a point in the first half, and had a 26-23 lead in the second half when Clay Center went on a run.
The Tigers got baskets by Emily Ebert and Courtney Hammel and then consecutive threes by Hammel and Lorren Williams to open up a 33-26 advantage.
“I didn’t feel like we had a lot of energy on defense in the second half. They were able to hit some wide open shots and kind of did what they wanted to do,” Wahlmeier said.
A jumper by Jordan Eshbaugh left Concordia trailing 33-28 heading into the fourth quarter.
Tristen Leiszler, who was shadowed the entire game by Clay Center’s box-and-one defense, knocked down a three 48 seconds into the final period, and the Panthers trailed just 33-31.
Leiszler was able to score 12 points, but was just 4 of 14 from the field.
Clay Center scored the next six points to open up a 39-31 lead.
The two teams traded baskets, and the Panthers got a free throw by Leiszler and a follow by Jordynn Gumm to close the gap to 41-36.
After Clay Center’s Mackenzie Edmundson missed the front end of a one-and-one opportunity, Megan James hit from 12 feet to pull Concordia within three points, 41-38, with 1:10 remaining in the game.
Williams made two free throws, but the Panthers answered with a pair of free throws by Eshbaugh.
Concordia forced a jump ball, and had the arrow pointing its way.
A long three-point attempt by Leiszler that would have tied the game didn’t drop.
Macy Franson made two free throws with 27 seconds on the clock, and the Tigers led 45-40.
James couldn’t get a shot to fall, and Clay Center went three of four from the line in the final 16 seconds to lock up the win.
Eshbaugh finished with 10 points and nine rebounds for Concordia.
No other Panther had more than six points.
“We had been pretty balanced in scoring, but we didn’t have that. We needed other people to step up and do that,” Wahlmeier said.
Williams hit four threes in leading Clay Center with 16 points.
Hammel hit a pair of threes, and finished with 12 points.
Franson added 10 points.
“We haven’t been closing out well on the shooters, and leaving them too wide open,” Wahlmeier said.
There were five lead changes in the first 7:30 of the game.
Down 8-7, the Panthers got baskets by Leiszler and James to go up 11-8.
Clay Center scored the first four points of the second period to go back on top, 12-11.
Four straight points by Maggie Lambert and a bucket by Molly Adams gave Concordia the lead back at 17-12.
Concordia was up 21-15 when Williams hit a three with time running out in the half to close the gap to 21-18.
“I kept thinking they were hanging around. Right before half they hit that shot, and I thought that was big,” Wahlmeier said.
A follow by Franson and a three by Williams gave Clay Center a 23-21 lead less than two minutes into the second half.
Leiszler hit a three and Adams scored inside, and Concordia was on top 26-23.
Clay Center scored 10 straight points to take control, and the Panthers were unable to catch back up.
CLAY CENTER (48)
Williams 5-2-0 16, Franson 3-4-3 10, Bohnenblust 0-0-1 0, Edmundson 1-0-3 2, Hammel 5-0-0 12, Ebert 2-0-2 4, Dieckman 1-2-2 4. Totals: 17-8-11 48.
Gumm 1-0-2 2, Lambert 3-0-4 6, Eshbaugh 4-2-1 10, Adams 2-0-4 4, Leiszler 4-1-3 12, James 3-0-4 6. Totals; 17-3-18 40.