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Wellington girls claw their way to 33-29 victory over McPherson in first round of state

Valerie Norwood with two free throws to secure the win against McPherson. (Photos by Eric Rinehart)

by Tracy McCue, Sumner County — The Wellington girls won their first state tournament game since 2016 with a 33-29 victory over McPherson in a grinder of a game.

Overcoming a 10 of 49 shooting day, Wellington advances to the state semifinals where it will be playing Bishop Miege Friday at 2 p.m. The Crusaders will be the underdogs, despite being the No. 1 seed in the tournament. Miege has won seven consecutive state championships. The Stags beat Andale today 74-35.

The first-round state game between Wellington and McPherson was played in less than 90 minutes, but it might have seemed like 90 hours for the Wellington faithful.

The Crusaders didn’t play poorly, they just shot poorly, fouled a lot, and was obviously taken in by the state tournament lights.

“The girls may have not admitted to being nervous, but it was obvious they were,” said Eric Adams, Wellington head girls basketball coach. “They never faced this kind of adversity. But they played through it and won this game. I’m so proud of them.”

Kami Reichenberger driving to the hoop against McPherson.

McPherson, despite being in a rebuilding stage, was exactly the formidable opponent you come to expect in the state tournament. And while the Crusaders shot poorly, McPherson didn’t shoot any better, going 8-of-37. It was an atrocious 0-for-14 at the 3-point line. Wellington was 2-of-13, but those two 3-pointers were the difference in this ballgame.

The Bullpups will go into the off-season knowing they were eliminated in part because of their free-throw shooting – going 13-of-26 for the game and was an awful 4-of-12 in the fourth quarter alone.

The game was 29-all with 40.33 seconds left when McPherson’s Karter Alvord hit a 6-footer. Airalyn Frame then found herself inside the paint for two put-backs but missed both. But she got fouled and went to the line. She would sink both to make it 31-29.

McPherson then drove down before Crusader Valerie Norwood stole the ball and appeared to be on her way for a game-winning layup but was fouled with 4.7 seconds to play.

After a time out, the cool-handed freshman nailed both free throws to give the Crusaders a four-point lead and the win.

This game from the very start felt it was going to be 32 minutes of tense-filled agonizing intensity. Britt Zeka opened the game with a 10-footer miss. She would never make a basket all game going 0-for-12 from the field. And it wasn’t like she was throwing up prayers. The basketball gods were punishing her for some reason.

“I guarantee you Britt Zeka will be back to her old form on Friday,” Adams said. “You can print that.”

Wellington scored just two points in the first quarter and was trailing 7-2 at the 8-minute mark.

“The first quarter killed us,” Adams said. “We couldn’t get anything going. I’ve said this before but when you don’t shoot the ball well you start getting tense defensively and that can lead to fouls.”

Oh, those fouls. Wellington made 23 of them. In the end Ali Zeka fouled out and B. Zeka, Ashlyn Gerten , Frame, Kami Reichenberger all had four. It was a good thing this game wasn’t going into overtime because the Crusaders may have ended up recruiting the bus driver to fill out the roster.

Ali Zeka fighting for the ball against McPherson’s Karter Alvord.

In the second quarter, Ali Zeka provided Wellington’s first spark hitting a 3-pointer at the 5:12 mark. Norwood would follow with a trey on the next possession and Wellington was tied at 9. The Crusaders led 15-13 at the half.

“We knew we were frustrated but at halftime, we just talked through it and was ready for the second half,” Adams said.

Wellington won this game to start the third quarter. It would score on the first three possessions and led 21-13. It would be a precarious lead it would hold onto the rest of the game.

The Crusaders took a 25-21 lead going into the fourth quarter. It was 29-24 when Laurent Labertew, who led McPherson with 11, scored a three-point play. That 29-27 score remained so for the next 90 seconds (or 90 hours in psychological time) before McPherson tied the game at 29.

Wellington is now 23-0 and will play perennial buzzsaw Bishop Miege who just destroyed Andale.

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