Playing basketball against Wichita South’s girls is like being in a dentist’s chair and being asked to open your mouth as a drill buzzes inches away.
The Titans are methodical to the point of distraction. I’m a proponent of a shot clock in high school basketball because of teams like South, who walk the ball up the floor most of the time on offense and defend the opposition like its players are carrying the flu bug into a preschool.
As South coach Antwain Scales stands near the bench with his arms crossed and his eyes darting, his players carry out his game plan. It’s one built on low-possession basketball, which requires that South take care of the basketball and not take contested shots.
And the thing is, it works. The Titans won their second Class 6A championship in a row Saturday at Koch Arena, beating Maize 47-35. The Eagles fell behind early and were unable to chip away much of South’s lead. After the game, as they were leaving the locker room, many of the Maize players were drying tears, probably from the disappointment of the loss. But they could also have been tears of joy because playing South cannot be fun.
“We like to take our time,” Scales said in the biggest understatement of the weekend. “It’s a strategic approach we take to the game. Slow the game, slow the tempo, play smart and use the clock to our advantage.”
The Titans lost once this season, to Kapaun Mount Carmel in December, and have won 46 of 47 dating back to last season. They have mostly clobbered everyone, holding opponents under 20 points 10 times this season. For a game.
South is loaded with talent, but it’s not unbridled.
“We try, especially at the state level, to value every possession we have,” sophomore point guard Ericka Mattingly said. “A lot of times Antwain says, ‘Hey, be patient, settle, don’t rush.’ It’s so that we don’t get out of control with the ball.”
South had nine turnovers against Maize and Mattingly, whose stoic demeanor on the floor reminds me of Clint Eastwood — if Eastwood was 66 years younger and a female. Mattingly just doesn’t get rattled. At one point late in the third quarter, she put on a dribbling display as the Titans were running down the clock to set up a final shot. It lasted for about 30 seconds, long enough for fans to begin to applaud.
After the game, Mattingly, who led South with 14 points, was jolly and all smiles. So unlike Eastwood.
“We definitely had our hands full with Maize,” she said. “But we went out and played our game.”
South beat Maize 51-49 earlier this season in the City League/AV-CTL Challenge at Koch Arena. So this was an anticipated rematch between young teams with size and talent.
Maize shot 27.8 percent Saturday against South’s defense. As deliberate as the Titans are on offense, they’re hyperactive defensively, battling for every rebound and rarely giving up an easy shot.
Scales loves coaching this way and his players are 100 percent on board.
“We just want to get a great shot on offense, the best shot possible,” Scales said. “Hey, the shot clock is OK for the college level when you design more set plays.”
But Scales is all for leaving things just the way they are in high school girls basketball. A 10-point deficit to the Titans looks as bleak as an episode of “True Detective.”
With the unflappable Mattingly at point guard, and players such as Kendrian Elliot, Eledria Franklin, Kyla Callins, Madison Northcutt and others, the Titans are building a dynasty.
“We depend on Ericka a lot,” Scales said. “She’s the catalyst of our team and she’s been great at decision-making all year. Plus, she’s tough as nails. She gets after it and that’s the kind of kid I want around me. It’s kind of that Wichita State model of playing angry.”
For years, the Heights girls were the dominant 6A program in Kansas. It appeared like the Falcons, who won six state championships from 2002-12, might never loosen their grasp.
Heights, though, is now a 5A school that has slipped into the background as a new power has emerged. South will lose Franklin and Northcutt from this team and neither will be easy to replace.
But the Titans look like they’ll be adding more state crowns. Mattingly, with two now, said unflinchingly that her goal is to win four. If it happens, it will be at South’s pace. No hurry. Good things, the Titans believe, come to those who play with deliberation.