The waiting made it worse.
There was nowhere to escape, nowhere to hide the pain Saturday night after East suffered its first loss of the season, 61-51 to Hays in the title game of the Tournament of Champions.
Just feet away from where their undefeated season was ended by a disciplined team from Western Kansas, the Blue Aces were trapped on the bench, seemingly for an eternity, for the championship presentation.
“It hurts because they get the trophy right in front of you,” said Tyas Martin, an East senior guard. “It hurts a lot.”
It hurts because East played careless for too long, putting itself in a 12-point hole in the second half, and not even unleashing its already terrific defense in the final minutes could rescue East from defeat.
A step-back three-pointer from Samajae Jones, which cut the Hays lead to 56-49 with 2:09 remaining, sent East into a frenzy.
In the next 80 seconds, madness ensued with Hays committing five turnovers. But in those five extra chances, East missed four shots, turned it over once and only produced two points.
“That’s where we lost it,” said Martin, who finished with 21 points and six rebounds. “Those were easy points we could have had.”
“The opportunity was there,” East coach Joe Jackson agreed. “We gave ourselves a chance.”
Outside of those 80 seconds, Hays was a poised, senior-laden squad whose discipline bested one of the most talented and athletic teams in Kansas.
East relies on a rebounding advantage, but 6-foot-7 Hays junior Brady Werth nearly single-handed negated it (East had one more total rebound). Werth, named tournament MVP, scored 17 points, including a thunderous one-handed slam over his counterpart from East, Xavier Kelly.
Hays, which has the smallest enrollment of any Class 5A school with 737, said it didn’t think of itself as a small-town team in its championship run with wins over 6A’s Hutchinson (1,487), Manhattan (1,638), and East (2,258).
“We all get to play just five,” Hays coach Rick Keltner pointed out. “So we don’t get too caught up with the whole David vs. Goliath thing.”
East was on an unmistakable high, rolling into the title game with victories in its first 11 games.
Now it must figure out how to respond to a loss.
“We’re hurting right now,” Jackson said. “You walk into that locker room and the look on everybody’s faces and there’s a lot of disappointment. That put us in check a little bit. Now it’s time for us to get back to work.”
Maize 51, Manhattan 47 — Maize looked in complete control with a 7-point lead with under four minutes left. Then a furious rally by Manhattan gave the Indians the lead 47-46 with 1:24 remaining.
When the Eagles needed a play made the most, it was their senior class that stepped up. Connor Eleeson scored the go-ahead basket, then extended the lead with free throws; Caleb Wilcox took a crucial charge; Aaron Shaw made the final free throw to secure the win.
“These guys have paid their dues,” Maize coach Chris Davis said. “They know what’s expected of them. We have total confidence them and they came up big for us with plays down the stretch.”
After posting a losing record last season, Maize improved to 10-2 on the season behind a combined 32 points from Jacob Horsch, another senior who made all three of his three-pointers, and Shaw.
The difference, especially in close games, has been the chemistry.
“We’ve got six seniors and we’re all so close,” Eleeson said. “We played together over the summer and we want to get over the hump. We had a sick taste in our mouths from losing those close games last year, and we don’t want that taste anymore.”
Hutchinson 44, Leavenworth 43 — The Salthawks were the lone squad in the 8-team field that entered with a losing record, yet they left as fifth-place winners with two wins over ranked Class 5A teams.
“I think we showed what we are capable of doing,” Hutchinson coach Nathan Henry said. “This is a group of kids that are going to play a lot better as the season goes along.”
After shooting 20 percent and scoring 19 points in the game’s first 24 minutes, Hutchinson made 10 of 12 shots and scored 25 points in the fourth quarter for a stunning comeback victory.
It was capped by a game-winning shot by Kalen Hilst, who used a pump fake and a spin move to free himself for an open look from 15 feet that hung on the rim before falling as the buzzer sounded.
“I thought it was short,” Hilst said. “I didn’t think I got enough on it. This gym likes me, I guess.”
Hard to argue after Hilst averaged 14.3 points with nine three-pointers off the bench in Dodge City.
Heights 70, Dodge City 40 — After struggling in losses against two teams that played a zone defense, Heights broke free of its shackles with a return-to-form performance to capture seventh place.
Heights was so effective (54.3 percent shooting with nine three-pointers) against zone, in fact, Dodge City was forced to concede and switch out of it.
Eleven players from Heights (9-3) scored, as Chris Lowe led all with 16 points and four three-pointers.
“We are quite capable of being a very, very good team, but I think we fully realized just how bad we can be,” Heights coach Joe Auer said. “And that’s a good place to be. We don’t want to peak right now. We want to figure out who we are along the way.
“We are without a doubt a better team than when we got here.”
Hays 61, East 51
HAYS: Niernberger 4, Clark 5, Windholz 13, Parker 6, Werth 17, Riedel 11, Nunnery 5, Rounkles 0.
EAST: Jones 11, Martin 21, Jackson 5, McGairty 4, Kelly 8, Champion 1, Fralin 1, Mutazammil 0, Caw 0.
Maize 51, Manhattan 47
MANHATTAN: Awbrey 6, Stitt 7, McAtee 6, Taylor 8, Stephens 12, Francis 6, Fehr 0, Martin 0, Munson 0.
MAIZE: Horsch 17, Wilcox 0, Jobe 3, Shaw 15, Lungwitz 8, Eleeson 6, Johnson 2, Engler 0.
Hutchinson 44, Leavenworth 43
HUTCHINSON: Wells 6, Arnold 4, Webster 6, Stoecklien 5, Parra 13, Hilst 10, Tolbert 0, McQueen 0, Faucett 0, Norman 0.
LEAVENWORTH: Randall 0, Wiggins 23, Ford 0, Lang 5, Anderson 8, Simmons 5, Boyce 2, Ellis 0, Miller 0.
Heights 70, Dodge City 40
HEIGHTS: Hervey 12, Lowe 16, King 8, Gill 6, Wilbeck 2, Bell 9, Johnson 6, Ellis 4, Johnson 3, Taylor 3, Howard 1, Bahner 0.
DODGE CITY: Unruh 8, Weiser 6, Oldham 5, Walters 1, Williams 0, Sands 10, Cunningham 6, McGroarty 2, Nelson 2.