As Allen drove into the red zone against the Wild late in the first round of the Indoor Football League playoffs on Monday night, Wichita wasn’t thinking about holding the Wranglers to a field goal and taking its chances in overtime.
With a three-point lead in the final seconds, the Wild was imagining the game-saving play that would allow it to advance to the Intense Conference finals.
Kendrick Harper fulfilled the Wild’s collective imagination by making an interception in the end zone, preserving a 43-40 win and sending Wichita to tonight’s conference finals against Tri Cities in Kennewick, Wash.
Harper, a University of Kansas product, made several big plays this season, including returning three interceptions for touchdowns. But no play was bigger than the one to send the Wild to the conference finals for the third time in the last four seasons.
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"I was thinking all along, ‘I’ve got to make a big play, somebody’s got to make a play,’ " Harper said. "Even if they kicked a field goal we’d go to overtime, but just making that play was a big, big deal for us."
Harper is used to important games, playing in several of them at Butler Community College and later at KU, when he started three games for the Jayhawks’ Orange Bowl-winning team. He started the Insight Bowl the following season.
That’s probably why Harper, whom the Wild signed before last season, wasn’t overwhelmed by the pressure of the game-changing situation he faced at Allen. After using varied approaches against Wranglers receiver Maurice Avery, Harper lulled him into believing he wouldn’t be a factor on the final play.
"Avery’s a good receiver, and the (previous) time I tried to press him and he kind of got away from me a little bit," Harper said. "I kind of changed it up a little bit to play off of him and see what he was going to do. I somehow made the play."
Harper’s interception was the final step in the Wild legitimizing its season after an 0-4 start. Wichita won six in a row and 8 of 9 at one point, but the regular-season finale was a 31-point road loss to Green Bay that created more questions.
Wichita hasn’t played Tri Cities this season, but the Fever led the Intense Conference with a 12-2 record while scoring the fourth-most points in the league. Running back Dennis Kennedy is probably the team’s most dynamic player, and Steven Whitehead tied for the IFL lead in receptions.
Without familiarity to help it against Tri Cities, the Wild is relying on its improved play and the morale boost it has created over the second half of the season, as well as the fact that it has already proven itself on the road in the playoffs.
"It’s pretty big," Harper said. "We’re on the road for the rest of the playoffs, which isn’t a big deal. We’re working hard as a team trying to accomplish this goal that we set at the beginning of the season. It really doesn’t matter if we play at home or on the road, you’ve still got to play a game."