With 11 seconds to go, Southeast senior Jordan Murdock stood dribbling the basketball in front of the Buffaloes’ raucous student section — and he smiled.
Murdock is a smiley sort anyway, but this one had a little bit more giddiness to it. It seemed a bit wider on his face.
He had plenty to smile about. With Southeast’s 72-57 victory over visiting Free State on Saturday night, the Buffaloes earned a Class 6A tournament berth for the first time since 2009.
Southeast (17-5) has won three titles since 1998 and finished twice, including in 2009.
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“Knowing it could have been the last game, we got to go out there and play hard,” said Murdock, who scored 10 of his 16 points in the first quarter. “I fought hard with my team we all came out and got that win. It feels good.”
Senior EJ Garnes, who scored 18 points, eight in the final period, worked through two straight 9-12 Buffaloes seasons. He didn’t waver in his decision to stick with Southeast through the tough times.
“It’s been a wild ride,” Garnes said. “I had a lot of opportunities. I had to stay faithful to my Buffalo family. I could never leave them.
“The coaching changes, the players who left us, the players who came on. It’s amazing to be in this position.”
At halftime, Southeast’s second-year coach Melvin Herring pressed his team to focus on defense to rebound from the 33-30 deficit.
Free State had outscored Southeast 18-11 in the second quarter, shooting 6 of 9 from the field and getting two three-pointers from Cole Moreano. Senior Khadre Lane scored nine of his game-high 27 points in the period.
Defense is what Herring has preached in his tenure, and once that improved, so did Southeast.
“Defense is what gets us through,” Herring said. “We knew we needed to get pressure on the basketball. We wanted to come out in the second half and play more aggressive on the defensive end.”
After a three-pointer by Southeast sophomore Jerrick Harding, who scored 18 points, sophomore D’Andre Franklin got a steal and a layup for the 42-36 lead at 2:31 of the third quarter.
Thirty seconds later, Garnes got a steal and scored.
“We had to speed them up, cause turnovers, get into the passing lanes, get fastbreak points,” Garnes said. “Once we pick up our defense, get fastbreaks, everything starts falling for us.”
Franklin had nine third-quarter points, including a three-pointer at the buzzer for the 48-41 lead.
“That sparked us a lot,” Murdock said of Franklin’s scoring. “He’s so hard-working in practice.”
Garnes added: “He’s a warrior. He’s had so many injuries. He’s been through it all. He wasn’t starting, barely played at all. He’s become a big scorer for us.”
Free State got within 54-49 on a Keith Loneker basket with 4:41 to go, but Murdock scored on a putback and Garnes got a steal and layup.
“We got a lot of steals, especially EJ,” Murdock said. “He gets those signature steals. I just stand back and clap.”
In the final 3:18, Southeast scored 14 of the game’s final 20 points.
“All of my teammates, I love them so much,” Murdock said. “Knowing this is my last year, they have more to come, but we’re going to try to get it this year.”
Free State: Moreano 17, Loneker 2, Lane 27, Winslow 7, Garber 1, Narcomey 3.
Southeast: Harding 18, Murdock 16, Oyugi 7, Franklin 11, Garnes 18, Love 2, Joseph 2.
Southeast celebrates (with fan video)
Southeast senior EJ Garnes celebrates by making a prom request
Southeast senior EJ Garnes talks about beating Free State and getting to the state tournament for the first time in his career.
Southeast senior Jordan Murdock talks about getting to the Class 6A tournament
Southeast coach Melvin Herring