McLouth reaches MIT finals, drops close game with Valley Falls
The McLouth High boys came up just short in their quest for the program’s first McLouth Invitational Tournament championship, but according to coach Jason Graf, the week was anything but a step backward.
Following an overtime thriller and a blowout victory against a team they lost to earlier this year, the Bulldogs pushed Valley Falls in Saturday’s title game, but couldn’t hang on late in an 84-77 loss.
“The tempo was about where we wanted it,” Graf said. “We made some critical mistakes at certain junctures, but it was a great game, obviously. I think, for us, we grew up a lot.”
The loss snapped a six-game win streak and was the Bulldogs’ first setback since Jan. 7. It’s unknown whether they had ever played in the MIT title game, but they have never won a championship in the tournament’s 27-year history.
MHS (7-4) took a 22-19 lead into the second quarter, but the Dragons — currently No. 6 in the Class 2A rankings — clawed back to take a three-point lead into the break, 40-37. The teams played even for the duration of the third quarter, and Valley Falls added some breathing room in the final period.
Valley Falls’ Luke Burns, the tournament’s most valuable player, led all scorers with 30 points. Nick McAferty led the Bulldogs with 20 points, while Dylan Dover and Nic Bair each added 15.
“Playing the No. 5 or 6 team in the state in a neck-and-neck game, that shows them they can do things at a high level,” Graf said. “They’re just big at every position and it caused us some problems, but for game No. 11 (of the season), I was pleased with our kids.”
The Bulldogs played nearly half the game without the services of Drew Cerny, who was hampered with foul trouble. Cerny, who averaged 17 points in McLouth’s first two tournament games, finished with just five in the finale.
Graf’s squad opened tournament play Jan. 21 with an 88-87 overtime win against Maranatha Academy that drew national attention. The Bulldogs clung to an 80-77 lead in the final seconds of regulation, but MCA’s Mikey Brown hit a 70-foot shot at the buzzer to force the extra period. The shot was featured on ESPN the next day.
“We gave him an opportunity to make a highlight-reel shot,” Graf said.
The Bulldogs rebounded in the overtime period, though, outscoring the Eagles, 8-7.
In its semifinal game Friday, MHS avenged a season-opening overtime loss to Olathe-Heritage Christian with a 69-50 drubbing of the Chargers. The Bulldogs sprinted out to a 16-2 lead at the end of the first quarter and led by double digits the rest of the way.
“To win championships, you’ve got to become a defensive team,” Graf said. “We played about as good defensively as I think we can.”
Following the conclusion of Saturday’s finale, Cerny, McAferty, Dover and Nic Bair were named to the all-tournament team.
MHS will return to the court Thursday for a rematch with Maranatha in Shawnee. The game is the first of a five-game road trip featuring three Northeast Kansas League opponents.
“We plan on getting back on the winning side and starting another streak,” Graf said. “We feel really good about where we’re at, but we think there’s still room for improvement. We haven’t scratched the surface os where we’re going to be, in my opinion.”