NORTH MANCHESTER — NORTH MANCHESTER — After a sluggish first half in which the Cass Kings spotted Southwood a 10-point halftime advantage, Keegen Key opened the second half with a thunderous alley-oop dunk, and it was game on from there.
The Kings put together a solid second half of play to thwart the Knights’ upset bid in a 56-55 win in the first round of the Class 2A Manchester Sectional.
After shooting just 7 of 27 in the first half and committing 11 turnovers, the Kings turned around and shot 14 of 26 and had just six turnovers in the second half of play.
“We challenged a couple of the players at halftime to see if they wanted their season to end the way the first half was,” Cass coach Jon Kitchel said. “They emphatically said, no, they didn’t want to, and one of them was Keegen. Being a senior, I said, is this the way you wanted it to end? And the way he played in the second half, he didn’t want it to end yet.”
Key, who had a game-high 27 points and 12 rebounds in the win, said it was the Kings’ defensive mindset in the second half that turned the game around. Cass held Southwood to 10 of 33 shooting and forced nine turnovers in the second half, and the Knights shot just six free throws in the second half after getting to the line 16 times in the first.
“We played really sluggish and slow defense in the first half,” Key said. “The second half we switched defenses, came out and stepped up. We caused some good turnovers which won us the game.”
An alley-oop pass from Austin Foreman to Key for a one-handed slam in transition brought Cass to within 38-35 with 40 seconds left in the third quarter and really got the Kings fans into it. Key’s three-point play near the end of the quarter tied the game at 38-all, completely erasing Cass’ 28-18 halftime deficit.
Jordan Miller opened the final stanza with a 3-pointer to give the Kings their first lead since the first quarter. Key followed with another dunk, his fourth of the game, to open up a five-point lead for the Kings. Both plays were set up by blocked shots by Drew Shepherd.
But the Knights weren’t done, as they hurt the Kings with second-chance points down the stretch and retook the lead on a long 3-point bomb by Conner Hobbs with 3:35 remaining.
Key answered with a putback to tie the game at 47-all, and Ryan Aldridge scored on an in-bounds play and Key had another putback to give Cass a 51-48 lead with a minute left to play.
Austin Keisling made a free throw to give Cass a 52-50 lead with 23.8 seconds left. The Kings got the ball back on a travel near midcourt, but Southwood’s Levi Winget stole the in-bounds pass and drove to the basket looking to tie the game. But Keisling stepped in front to take a big charge with :13 remaining that nullified the score.
“It was the play of the game because if he hits that it’s a tie game and the whole thing changes,” Kitchel said. “Guys stepped up and did things you have to do to win games.”
Blake Hadley and Miller then combined to make four straight free throws that gave Cass a 56-52 lead. Hobbs hit a long 3-pointer with two seconds left, but the Knights were out of timeouts and the ballgame ended.
Key scored his 27 points on 12 of 22 shooting. His first two alley-oops of the game were assisted by Justen Downhour passes on set plays.
“[Key’s] a very athletic kid,” Kitchel said. “The upside on him is the sky right now, because he got started late. In junior high he didn’t play basketball and so he’s really only played for three years. He just gets better and he’s fun to watch when he plays like that.”
Aldridge was also in double figures for the Kings (10-11) with 12 points, and he added six boards. Keisling scored six, Miller had five and Shepherd added four points and six boards.
Hobbs led the Knights (4-17) with 22 points, which included 5 of 11 shooting from 3-point range. Shane Smith scored 12 and Winget added 11.
The Knights did not resemble a four-win team, and part of that was due to getting some starters back from injury according to Kitchel.
“They’ve had injuries. They had two guys back who’ve been hurt for them this year, and they got back about a week or two ago,” he said. “That 2-3 defense where they extend it out like that, it took us about a half and half of the third quarter to get it figured out.”
Cass plays Wabash (10-11), which knocked off Manchester 65-58 Wednesday, in the later semifinal on Friday night. Northfield (19-3) plays Oak Hill (13-7) in the earlier semifinal.