All week long, the Heights boys basketball team heard about how Eisenhower had turned their home court, known as “The Zoo,” into a highlight factory.
The Falcons heard how Eisenhower had dynamic scorers in Trevon Evans and Tyler Buchanan, and how explosive the Tigers’ offense was during a 21-1 season to set up Wednesday’s quarterfinal match-up in the Class 5A tournament in Topeka.
But to Heights, it sounded like just another night in the City League.
So excuse the Falcons if they weren’t shocked at the conclusion of their 72-56 dismantling of Eisenhower to advance to Friday’s semifinals to face Lansing. The Falcons (19-4) have been playing in games like that all season.
“When you play in our league, history tells you that you’re ready for whatever comes in the postseason,” Heights coach Joe Auer said. “We play in the best league, top to bottom, in the state. Everybody in Kansas knows that our league prepares you.”
It was a victory so thorough it left the Tigers exiting the court in disbelief. No one wearing baby blue could fathom this was how it ended for their six seniors, five of whom have won 58 games in Eisenhower’s first three years of existence.
“Our program has tradition because of those seniors,” Eisenhower coach Steve Blue said. “We’ve got some things going for us that it takes most schools years to build.”
Through all the success, a glaring omission remained: Eisenhower is without a victory at state, as all three seasons have been ended by City League teams.
After an entire season of relying on their superior athleticism to get whatever they wanted on the offensive end, the Tigers failed to adjust when Heights was able to match their greatest strength.
“In our league, we’re fast,” Blue said. “In the City League, we would just be average.”
It was particularly discouraging when Heights, a team Eisenhower had concluded from its scouting to be a weak outside-shooting team, made 7 of 11 shots, including three three-pointers, to build a 19-11 lead at the end of the first quarter.
Heights junior Semaj Hervey delivered most of the blows, swishing two three-pointers and finishing on two acrobatic forays into the lane. Hervey had his way with Eisenhower defenders the entire game, utilizing hesitation dribbles, pump-fakes and other crafty maneuvers to score 28 points on an efficient 12 shots.
“I felt like he could do whatever he wanted out there,” teammate Arie Johnson said. “When he started doing that, everybody wanted to be a part of it.”
The natural counter for Eisenhower was in Evans, a prolific scorer who averaged 25.8 points as a junior and 21.4 this season due to his quickness shooting him through the lane toward high-percentage shots.
While that talent would translate to any league, it is more commonplace in the City League. And when the Falcons squeezed off those driving lanes, Evans struggled to become a factor in a 13-point, 11-shot performance that included two assists and no rebounds.
“Our kids have spent a night guarding Conner Frankamp,” Auer said. “They spent a night chasing E.J. Garnes all over Sedgwick County. They spent a night of finding out which corner Jerrick Harding is hiding out in. They’re ready. We were prepared.”
“We see a player like (Evans) every night,” Hervey added.
The most telling statistic was that Eisenhower never scored more than five straight points, essentially never piecing together a run, and didn’t score back-to-back unanswered baskets until the fourth quarter. By then, the Tigers were down 20.
Eisenhower, which was led by Tyler Buchanan (15 points, 9 rebounds) off the bench, finished shooting a season-worst 35 percent with 14 turnovers.
When the Falcons take on Lansing in Friday’s semifinals, it will be their sixth appearance in the Final Four at state in the past seven seasons.
“It’s hard to be the kids that follows 62 (wins) in a row and four (state titles) in a row,” Auer said. “That’s a hard place to be. I think they’ve handled it real well.”
For Heights, it was a monumental victory in signalling that its program can not only survive, but thrive in the post-Perry Ellis era.
“I’m just glad we can start our own legacy,” Hervey said. “I want everybody to remember us as the team that won state without Perry. We’re our own good team.”
Salina Central was led in scoring at 12 points, posted by RaShun Allen and Jordan McNelly.