They walked off the court in disbelief.
Heights was up two early in the fourth quarter after a disastrous first quarter, but Salina Central had answers. The Falcons lost 54-46. There have been seasons without a trip to the state tournament, but Wednesday marked their first loss in the first round of the Class 5A boys basketball tournament since 1999.
Coach Joe Auer said the defeat was not his players' fault .
"They did nothing but represent our program and our school with tremendous dignity," Auer said. "For kids to get behind like that but stay the course and trust your scheme, that's mature. ... It's tough for an adult, let alone a kid."
Never miss a local story.
That didn't ease the pain. Players walked off the court dispirited. Heights has made a name for itself in winning fourth quarters this season but lost the fourth 17-9 in Topeka.
Heights scored four points in the first quarter and trailed by 10. The Falcons shot 20 percent from the floor in the first half, and that was after a 12-point second quarter.
"Coach told us before the game the only way they were gonna beat us is if they started hot, and they did," senior Devin Davis said.
Auer said he told his team to calm down at halftime, to stick with the plan. To the Falcons' credit, they did. Heights got into its half-court sets and started crawling back, winning the third quarter 21-13.
"Their determination, their effort, what they overcame to get back into the game, we really thought we were gonna win the game," he said.
Salina Central made the game ugly. The Mustangs were content with passing the ball for up to two minutes, and Heights got frustrated. On a possession with under three minutes to go, Central fought through three Heights fouls without a shot.
The Mustangs deployed the same possession-heavy strategy in the sub-state final against Maize, a 40-30 victory. Central held the ball, got buckets when available and dug in defensively.
Central held 50 percent of its opponents to season-low point totals before Wednesday. The Mustangs allowed the fewest points in all games and games against sub-state finalists and champions among all Class 5A qualifiers.
"It just came down to getting a stop," Davis said. "We got the lead a couple times, but we just couldn't make a stop the next play down."
For the first time since 2011, two Wichita-area teams left the Class 5A tournament after the first round. Heights' loss was the second after No. 8 Mill Valley upset top-seeded Eisenhower.
The upsets left players out of sorts and left Carroll as the only boys team left in Topeka.