There’s a different vibe visible with the Heights girls, and not merely because the Falcons beat Maize 48-39 Friday night at Koch Arena to put them back into the Class 6A title game with a chance to win their third straight.
Heights has lost six games this season, the most since 1999-2000. The Falcons lost a late lead to Maize in the Shawnee Heights tournament title game in January.
The Falcons’ differences from even three weeks ago are vast. They’re cleaner on defense, a greater focus on fundamentals, and a noticeably stronger mental edge.
“These kids deserve it,” said Heights coach Kip Pulliam, who is 4-2 in title games. “We had a long road this year. We’ve had some ups, we’ve had some downs. We lost a lot of close games. We went through the bottoms. We were down in the dumps with six losses.”
Heights, the No. 7 seed which won the past two titles with undefeated records, will face Wichita South, a 51-48 winner over Blue Valley North in Saturday’s 4 p.m. title game. Top-seeded South (23-1) has beaten Heights (18-6) twice in City League play.
In the past few weeks, Pulliam put an emphasis on fundamentals. The biggest change, though, revealed itself in the mental strength. The Falcons didn’t get rattled against Maize as they have against other top-caliber opponents.
“We’re in it in our head more,” said Heights senior Jharian Bowen, who had 18 points, hitting 4 of 5 threes. “We’re a different team to me. Our head is in it this time.”
The defense has also improved. This isn’t the Heights team of past years that pressed and trapped nonstop, scoring at will on fastbreaks. Instead, the Falcons stayed in front of Maize, got a hand in the shooter’s face, and rebounded.
Heights forced 18 turnovers and held Maize to 29.2-percent shooting.
With Heights leading 23-21 with about five minutes to go in the third quarter, Bowen got a steal, was fouled and made two free throws. Less than a minute later, Jada Lynch got a steal and Jurnee Reid scored.
And in the final 27 seconds of the period, Bowen hit a three and Katie Palmer scored on a last-second shot for an 11-point lead. Palmer finished with 13 points.
“You have to keep your head in it the whole time,” Palmer said. “If you don’t have your head in the game, you won’t do much for the team.”
Credit Heights senior Odyssey Trussell with her tight defense on Maize senior Paige Lungwitz, who finished with six points, but didn’t score until she hit a three with 2:47 to go. Lungwitz averages 15 points.
“We just didn’t want to lose (Lungwitz),” Pulliam said. “Wanted to keep her in front, keep a hand in her face, not let her get to the basket.”
Not getting to the championship was painful for Maize (21-3), especially because of Lungwitz.
“It’s really disappointing, especially for Paige,” said Maize sophomore Keiryn Swenson, who had 18 points and five rebounds. “We were really wanting to do this for her. She’s a great player, and we wanted to do it for her.”
Maize, which finished third last season, also got 10 rebounds from Brayden Byrd.
But South sophomore Kirea Rogers raced the basketball up the floor and into a two-on-one situation with teammate Kendrian Elliott. Rogers passed it over to Elliott, who scored for a three-point lead.
“I seen there was nobody behind the half-court line, and I knew if we lobbed the ball that we could get down there and either get the foul or the basket,” Elliott said. “I knew our guards would be able to read the court and get the ball where it needed to be.”
South’s defense did the rest in the final nine seconds to put it a 6A title game for the first time in seven years. Heights won that game.
“That was sweet,” Scales said of Elliott’s basket. “I was saying slow it down, let’s be patient. We went ahead and ‘Oh, OK,’ once we got it.”
The Titans didn’t play a perfect game, missing 16 of 22 free throws.
“We shoot 6 of 22 from the line and still get it done,” Scales said. “It takes a little of having God on your side. It’s tough because we stress in practice free throws, too.”
Elliott said the Titans run quite a bit in practice because of free throws.
“It’s kind of annoying since we’re not knocking them down like we should be,” said Elliott, who was 0 for 4 from the line. “I thought we still did a good job of getting the job done.”
BV North had control early, driving in on South, getting good shots and snatching a 12-4 lead by the midpoint of the first period. Christian Keys led BV North with 15 points, while Caroline Dupont had 12 rebounds.
South’s defense improved, though, scoring off three BV North turnovers to take a 22-17 lead with 3:14 to go in the first half.
“We played good defense, most definitely,” said South sophomore Ericka Mattingly, who had 10 points. “I know their team’s pretty big, and we had to make sure we D’ed them up.”
Trailing 40-39 with 6:35 to go, South scored seven straight points. But Eledria Franklin’s three to cap that run for the 46-40 lead with 4:05 to go was South’s last basket until Elliott’s, nearly four minutes later.
South made 3 of 9 free throws in that span.
“You have to understand, with young kids and a big stage, it’s going to happen,” Scales said. “I’m glad we were able to definitely stay in the game.
“ Adversity struck a couple times. There were some lead changes, and we stuck with it.”