EMPORIA, Kan. - For the first time since 2011, the South Haven boys basketball team finds itself on the brink of a state title.
This edition of the Cardinals advanced to the championship game with a 65-60 victory over the Stockton Tigers (18-7) Friday evening at the White Auditorium Civic Center.
The game was a back-and-forth contest between the two Class 1A Division I foes and kicked off semi-final action in the boys' bracket Friday evening.
Stockton led by no more than four while the Cardinals, who controlled the scoreboard most of the way Friday, led by no more than seven.
The game was sealed by clutch free-throw shooting by Bryce Byers and Austin Showman late. The two seniors finished 4-4 and 6-6 from the line respectively and South Haven went 14 of 20 from the stripe for the game.
"We've been talking a lot about free throws. Honestly we've been terrible from the line this year. You wouldn't be able to tell the last two or three games. We've shot it well," said South Haven coach Darren McDorman, whose team improved to 23-2 with the victory over the Tigers.
The Cardinals took full advantage of their depth and senior leadership in Friday's contest as all but two points were scored by players in their final campaign.
Stockton didn't feature the depth or experience that the Cards did entering play Friday, but the Tigers made up for it with a pair of 6-5 centers in Justin Wiltfong and Jaden Williams.
The duo proved to be an imposing presence for Stockton and scored early and often. Wiltfong finished the first half with four while Williams led all scorers with nine at the break.
Neither team established rhythm early though. The contest started with three-straight turnovers and Stockton threw the ball away on four of its first five possessions.
A tightly-called game went scoreless until nearly two minutes had passed when Koby Beougher of Stockton went up and in for two.
But Byers answered with his first triple of the night as his shot rimmed around twice before falling and the Cardinals were off.
Moments later, Byers canned another three and cut an early Stockton lead to 7-6.
Lane Cully stole a pass and took it to the other end to put South Haven up 8-7 with just under five left and the Cardinals would soon find an answer for the size advantage of the Tigers.
"(Wiltfong) is a heck of a post player. We took him out of the game I thought by attacking. We sped the game up and kept them from getting it inside," said McDorman.
South Haven denied interior passes and created turnovers and soon led 15-11 following triples by Austin Showman and Hunter Ray. In all, the Cardinals nailed 4 of 6 shots from deep in the first quarter and led by four after one.
Page 2 of 3 - Stockton got a heavily-guarded jumper from Jaden Williams to go early in the second and the game was back-and-forth for much of the period.
Justin Harris found Cully on the inside on a fast break to put South Haven up six with five left, but the Tigers kept in the game by hitting free throws the rest of the way.
After Showman nailed a triple with 3:30 left, Beougher answered with one of his own and a South Haven turnover gave way to a Williams bucket underneath that trimmed the lead to two.
Stockton took advantage of its trips to the line in the first half, making 5 of 8 attempts compared to a 1 of 2 clip from South Haven.
South Haven took a 27-23 lead into the break, but it was Stockton who came out firing in the third quarter.
Beougher hit a nice floater early and Wiltfong pulled the Tigers to within one with a free throw a minute later. The 6-5 sophomore missed the second of a pair, but Beougher rebounded and laid the ball in the hoop to give Stockton its first lead since the first quarter after a 5-0 spurt to start the third.
Beougher gave Stockton a three-point lead with a triple moments later, but Showman tied things with a three of his own with 5:30 to play. The South Haven senior had a big third quarter, later giving the Cards a lead with a nice crossover before being fouled and stealing the ball and scoring to make it 35-31 with five minutes left.
Stockton guard Reed Stevens nearly hit his second triple in a row with 2:34 to go but the ball rolled out and Bryce Byers led the break before hitting a three on the other end to put South Haven up four.
The six-point swing looked like it put momentum in South Haven's hands, but Stockton closed the quarter on a 7-3 spurt to tie things going into the fourth.
Once there, Stockton opened a three-point lead early on a trey, but South Haven soon entered the bonus and took advantage of foul shots to go up 48-46 on an offensive rebound by James Moreland, who was fouled and nailed two free throws.
Jaden Williams scored back-to-back buckets on inbounds plays for Stockton though to give the Tigers a two-point lead moments later.
But Showman answered with his own rebound to notch the game at 50 with five minutes left.
Reed Stephens swished a triple at the other end, but Showman nailed one of his own and South Haven called time out with 4:35 to go with the game tied and both crowds fully in the game following an impressive sequence.
Page 3 of 3 - Showman took a seat later in the quarter when he picked up his fourth foul and South Haven, the much deeper team, was the first to find itself in serious foul trouble with one of its top players on the bench.
But Lane Cully hit a shot from 15 out to give South Haven a 55-53 lead with 3:43 left and the Cardinals started to pull away.
Hunter Ray pump faked a three-pointer with just under three left and drove baseline to make it a three-point lead, and McDorman told Byers to slow it down after William Lowe snared a defensive rebound with 2:40 remaining.
Byers was later fouled 25 feet from the basket with under two minutes left and made two free throws to put South Haven up five.
Jaden Williams pulled Stockton to within three on the other end, and Showman was blocked near the bucket and the Tigers found themselves with one more chance.
But with under a minute left, Beougher was called for an offensive foul after lowering his shoulder on a drive to the hoop and took a seat with his fifth foul. From there, the Cardinals nailed free throws and pulled away - and into the state finale.
For the game, South Haven out-rebounded Stockton 31-21, including a 14-6 edge on the offensive glass.
Williams led Stockton with 18 points and Beougher pitched in 17 while Reed Stephens made three triples on the way to 11 points.
As a team, Stockton finished 22 of 40 from the field and 6 of 15 from deep while making 10 of 17 free throws.
Showman led all scorers with 21 points on 6 of 17 shooting and his 6 of 6 performance from the line, making him 13 for 13 from the stripe in the state tourney.
Byers added 15, Cully scored 12 and Hunter Ray had eight points.
South Haven was 22 of 50 from the field and 7 of 16 from deep and forced 14 turnovers compared to 12 of their own.
South Haven will take on the winner of the other semi-final, which featured No. 1 seed St. John-Hudson (23-1) and No. 5 Centralia (19-5), at 6:15 on Saturday in Emporia.
"We've got three starters off of the team that took second place two years ago. They know there's work left, and we haven't played our best game yet," said McDorman.