Makayla Harding acted as if she received recognition for her dirty-work contributions to the Heights girls basketball team all the time.
After Heights defeated Olathe South 50-43 in the Class 6A quarterfinals on Thursday at Koch Arena, Harding expressed the humility of someone who had practiced deflecting praise.
Harding said that even though her defense as part of the Falcons’ second-half press and her six rebounds were as responsible for Heights’ win as three teammates scoring in double figures, she declined credit because she was all about team.
But when Heights coach Kip Pulliam expressed thankfulness for someone finally wanting to talk to Harding about her importance to the team, it was clear that receiving adulation beyond her coaches and teammates was unfamiliar to her.
"She’s our energy, she’s our heart and our soul," Pulliam said. "She’s not going to show up with amazing stats at the end of the game, but she’s going to be that kid who’s going to give us what we need to win the game, and she did that tonight."
The defending-champion Falcons entered the tournament as the No. 7 seed and upset No. 2 Olathe South to set up Friday's semifinal.
Pulliam held off on full-court pressure until the second half because Olathe South had previous success against it and Pulliam didn’t want the opponent to use halftime to adjust.
Heights trailed 23-18 at half but quickly erased the deficit. Though the teams had met six times in the postseason in the last seven years, this time Olathe South was overwhelmed by the press and committed four early turnovers.
Harding was key to those efforts even though she didn’t score. Her role in the press frustrated Olathe South, and her steadiness stabilized Heights. Harding played 20 minutes without a turnover and had two steals.
"We all just pump each other up once we set the trap because we rely on each other to get the steal," Harding said.
Even though defense allowed Heights to start the third quarter on a 12-1 run, it never pulled away and couldn’t extend its lead beyond five until the final minute. Olathe South star Kylee Kopatich scored six of her 19 points in the third to keep her team close, but eventually even she was worn down by Heights’ swarming defense.
Kopatich didn’t have a basket in the fourth, when Olathe South went more than six minutes without scoring from the field. Heights made 11 of 14 free throws in the final quarter to finally reverse their problems in close games.
Half of Heights’ six losses came by eight or fewer points, but the clutch free throws at the end of the second half and Harding’s less-noticeable accomplishments allowed the Heights to get a close win at just the right time.
"We’re getting there," Pulliam said. "We lost those games at the beginning of the year. We didn’t do what we had to do to finish, and tonight we did. We made free throws, we got rebounds."