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SIMPLY THE BEST: Halstead Boys Win State Title

Posted 3/15/2018

KASON O’Neal gets air while making a shot against Phillipsburg. O’Neal was the leading scorer during the tournament, averaging 14.7 points per game.KASON O’Neal gets air while making a shot against Phillipsburg. O’Neal was the leading scorer during the tournament, averaging 14.7 points per game.Editor's note: For extensive coverage of the Halstead boys basketball team's state title win, please see this week's commemorative print edition.

By Jared Janzen

HALSTEAD—All season long as the Halstead boys basketball team built up a winning record and defeated tough opponents like Hesston and Hillsboro, head coach Lonnie Lollar continued to say that his team hadn’t reached its ceiling yet, that the boys could still achieve more.

Those words rang true Saturday night when the Halstead Dragons brought home their eighth state title in program history, beating Phillipsburg, 44-42, in the championship game.

“The whole week was an incredible journey and an incredible accomplishment,” Lollar said. “This is a great group of young men who’ve kept fighting for what we’ve accomplished in the last two years.”

The win means 2018 will go down in Dragon history books along with 2001, 1952, 1945, 1944, 1942, 1909, and 1908 as years Halstead has taken state. Altogether, this was the team’s 18th appearance at the state tournament in program history.

“Halstead has a basketball tradition, and I’m glad we could add a little more to that,” Lollar said.

This year’s title win came down to the very last second of the very last play. Tied 42-all with 6.7 seconds on the clock, the Dragons came out of a time-out and senior Dalton Kraus passed the ball in-bounds to junior Braden Gerber in the backcourt, who drove it to the basket for the win.

“I’ve practiced moves like that for years and years,” Gerber said. He added that making the game-winning shot of a state championship game was like a dream come true.

“The play was supposed to go to Kason O’Neal, but really it could have been anybody,” Gerber said. O’Neal had been guarded too closely to take the pass.

Lollar said he had been confidant Gerber would make that game-winning shot.

“I knew he was going to make it,” Lollar said.

Even if the game had gone into overtime, Lollar said he was confident Halstead would have still got the win through good free-throw shooting and running time off the clock.

While the final few minutes of the game came down to the wire, that wasn’t the pattern of the entire game. The Dragons held the No. 2 Phillipsburg Panthers to just four points in the second quarter, which helped Halstead build an 11-point lead early in the third.

Lollar described Phillipsburg as very athletic, good at defense and very deserving to be in the state championship game. Phillipsburg had been the top-ranked team in the state for much of the second half of the season.

The Dragons took the reins from the get-go, with O’Neal and Gerber scoring on the Dragons’ first two possessions, while the Panthers didn’t get on the board until their third possession when they sunk a three, putting the score at 4-3 in Halstead’s favor.

O’Neal stole the ball with three minutes in the quarter to make an easy lay-up, 11-7, but Phillipsburg dropped in another trey two minutes later so that the Dragons only led by one after the first quarter, 11-10.

The Panthers scored on their first possession of the second quarter to grab a one-point lead, which would turn out to be their only lead of the night. They controlled the game for 1:38 before Andrew O’Brien put in a bucket for the Dragons. A Panther free throw tied the game at 13-all, but O’Neal responded with a field goal.

DALTON Kraus lines up for a free throw. He went 8-of-8 from the line that game. DALTON Kraus lines up for a free throw. He went 8-of-8 from the line that game. Another Panther free throw a minute later would be that team’s fourth and final point of the second quarter as the Dragons ended the half with a 7-0 run. Baskets by O’Brien and O’Neal plus a trey from O’Neal helped the Dragons get their largest lead of the game, 29-18 with 6:05 left on the clock in the third.

But then, just like in their first two state tournament games, the Dragons allowed a large run to allow their opponent to play catch-up. A 7-0 Panther run trimmed the deficit to just four points until it was finally broken by Gerber just before the buzzer, making the third-quarter score 31-25 with the Dragons up by six.

Free throws kept the Dragons alive in the fourth period, accounting for 11 out of the 13 points they made that period.

“Their defensive intensity and pressure increased,” Lollar said. “We tried to be more selective with opportunities to go to the basket.”

The Dragons shot 11-of-14 free throws in the final quarter with Dalton Kraus accounting for eight of them, shooting 100 percent.

The Dragons were up by a single point with 1:42 on the clock, 38-37. Phillipsburg took a timeout, then Halstead. Kraus dropped in a pair of free throws with 1:08 on the clock to give Halstead a three-point lead, which held until just 19 seconds were left in the game as both teams failed to capitalize on a free-throw opportunity.

Phillipsburg then sunk a three to tie the game, 40-all, but D. Kraus quickly followed it up with two more free throws to edge the Dragons ahead. With five seconds on the clock, the Panthers dropped in another bucket to tie the game again, 42-all. Lollar called a time-out for Halstead, and the clock was reset to 6.7 seconds.

Those final few moments of the game—with fans on both sides of the stadium on their feet in anticipation—came down to Gerber’s lay-up, and with the game on the line, he executed the play and kept the Dragons out of overtime.

Lollar said he had considered calling another timeout in those last few seconds to get the ball closer to the net, but when he saw Gerber with the ball he started yelling for him to drive, drive, drive.

“Their guys did a good job of guarding him,” Lollar said. “Braden Gerber just made a tough shot.”

“He’s fearless,” Lollar added.

The 44-42 win marks the Halstead boys basketball team’s eighth state title in program history. The team closes its season with a 23-2 record.

O’Neal led scoring against Phillipsburg with 15 points, followed by O’Brien and D. Kraus with eight each. Gerber totaled six on the night, while Bohling had five and Kaden Kraus added two.

The Dragons only made three three-pointers out of a dozen attempts, but they were 15-of-20 from the charity strip.

Phillipsburg’s leading scorer, No. 12 Ty Sides, had 10 points and was the opposing team’s only player to make double digits in the low-scoring contest.

The Panthers shot 3-of-13 from beyond the arc and were 50 percent at the line, making 7-of-14.

O’Neal, O’Brien and Bohling were all named to the all-tournament team by Sports in Kansas, along with two players from Phillipsburg. Sports in Kansas also named O’Neal the most outstanding player of the tournament. O’Neal was the top scorer in the tournament with 44 points, averaging 14.7 per game.

This was Lollar’s eighth trip to a state tournament as a coach but only his first state title. In past coaching positions he’s taken six teams to the 5A tournament and one to the 6A tournament, and while some of his teams have made the championship game before, they fell short in that final game.

Last season, after Lollar led the Dragons to a 12-10 record in his first year as their coach (the team’s first winning season since 2009-10), he had taken the players to watch the 3A state tournament games in Hutchinson.

“Just so they could see what it was like,” he said. “We had a great time. It gave them the idea then that it could be ours next year.”

He gave credit to the Halstead community for helping make this year’s state tournament memorable.

“I’m happy for every one of these kids for being part of our basketball program,” he said. “When I think about the thunderous sendoff we had today it gives me chills, and looking at the stands full of Halstead fans, it’s a moment I’ll never forget. This has been one of the best weeks of my life, if not the best.”

The Dragons end their historic 2017-18 season with a 23-2 record.

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