Every now and then, high school athletics will serve up a night to remember.
Such is the case for Iola High’s Mustangs, who embodied the term March Madness Tuesday to open Class 4A Substate Tournament action.
The Mustangs stormed back from 11 points down in the game’s last 5-plus minutes, holding Fort Scott scoreless down the stretch.
Senior Bradyn Cole’s two free throws with 7.5 seconds remaining were the decisive points for a 50-49 win. Victory wasn’t secure, however, until Fort Scott’s Gavin Pytlowany’s running fell short of the mark as the clock expired.
The victory moves Iola to the Substate Championship Friday evening at top seed Louisburg, which defeated Paola Tuesday in its semifinal round.
“They’re gonna be a tough matchup, no matter what,” Iola head coach Luke Bycroft said. “Hopefully our boys realize we can do these things well. When we have that kind of defensive energy, we can play with anybody.”
But before Iola sets its sights on Louisburg, it’s well worth a look back on Tuesday’s classic, which came against a Tiger team coached by Iola native Clint Heffern.
Even with attendance limited because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the crowd buzzed from the early going, then grew steadily louder with each Iola field goal down the stretch.
It was anything but easy.
It took every defensive stop, a little luck, and some steely nerves from the Mustangs after Fort Scott’s Treyton Brown scored on an up-and-under move with 5:40 left, pushing the Tigers to their biggest lead of the game, 49-38.
Iola’s Landon Carson led the charge. He hit two free throws with 5 ½ minutes left, then scored on a driving layup to slice the lead to seven with just inside 3 minutes left.
An inside Tiger miss put the ball back in Carson’s hands. His stumbling layup with 2:15 left found its mark, and suddenly the spread was down to five.
It was that shot that seemed to shift momentum, Bycroft said. Another Tiger miss led to Carson’s eighth straight point, a jumper from the elbow with 1:46 left.
“Landon hit shots to make it a game,” he said. “Everyone else was struggling. We got good shots. We just couldn’t get anything to go in.”
Senior guard Jack Adams followed with the defensive play of the game on Fort Scott’s next possession. The Tigers methodically moved the ball around the perimeter to chew up as much time as possible before Adams stepped in front of a pass to Bryden Hymer.
He zipped up court and put in the layup at the 1:00 mark and Fort Scott’s lead was down to a point.
“Huge play by Jack,” Bycroft said, noting Adams set the IHS record for steals in a season. His three against the Tigers have given him 70 for the year.
Another Tiger turnover followed, when a pass sailed out of bounds, giving the Mustangs possession once again. “I think his steal rattled them,” Bycroft said.
But Iola still had work to do.
Dillon Bycroft’s pass to Tyler Boeken was deflected off the rim, and into the arms of Brown for the Tigers. But Brown missed the front end of a 1-and-1 giving Iola another shot with 19 seconds remaining.
Coach Bycroft eschewed calling timeout to set up the last possession.
“It was in Landon’s hands, and it was a transition opportunity,” he explained. “I wanted to see if we could get something quick. These guys have played together so much, and they have the opportunity to make plays. I kind of trusted them to make it work.”
It did, but It took an offensive rebound to do it.
Bycroft got a clean look from the elbow, but the shot was short, and into the waiting arms of Cole, who was hammered as he went up for the putback with 7 ½ seconds remaining.
The senior swished the first free throw, then rattled in the second to give Iola the lead, setting up Fort Scott’s final ill-fated possession.
“Bradyn hit some huge, huge free throws,” Coach Bycroft said.
Pytlowaney’s miss capped a miserable finish for Fort Scott, which came up empty six straight shots down the stretch, all within 10 feet of the basket, and committed three turnovers.
“That’s pretty impressive,” Bycroft said. “I told the guys we could be great defensively when we play with that type of energy. And we did down the stretch. We were challenging shots, we were helping, we were not letting them get the ball to the rim. All the things we talked about all season, we did tonight. For five minutes.”
“A lot of stuff didn’t go our way,” Heffern said afterward.
CARSON was hot early, scoring 10 of Iola’s first 16 points. Boeken had the other six as the Mustangs held a 16-10 lead after one and a 28-25 lead at halftime.
“We executed our plan early on, and I still thought we executed pretty well when they went to man,” Bycroft said. “We just couldn’t get shots to fall. In the second quarter, we let them back in it by not stopping the ball.”
Heffern deployed a zone defense against the Mustangs early on, then switched to man-to-man after halftime.
The strategy worked, as Brown opened the third quarter with eight straight points to give the Tigers the lead for the first time of the game, 30-28.
It was part of a larger 24-10 Tiger run that threatened to end Iola’s season, and the high school careers of eight IHS seniors.
“It does cross your mind, when you think about it,” Dillon Bycroft said, of his senior season nearing its end. “Maybe it does prepare you for games like this.
Carson wound up with 27 points and three steals, while Boeken scored 11. Dillon Bycroft had nine steals and seven rebounds. Adams added four assists to his three steals.
AFTER THE game, Heffern was greeted by several friends and former teachers who were there to root on the Mustangs, but still supportive of the first-year head coach.
“It was different” walking into the gym as a visitor, Heffern said. “I wished it would have ended differently, but it was a special night.”
Fort Scott (10-15-17-7—49) (FG/3pt); Brown 6-4-2-16, Pytlowany 1/2-0-1-8, Southwell 7-1-1-15, Allen 1-0-1-2, Thomas 2/1-1-2-8, Hymer 0-0-1-0. TOTALS: 17/3-6-8-49.
Iola (16-15-8-14—50) (FG/3pt): Bycroft 1-0-2-2, Adams 1-0-2-2, Louk 2-0-2-4, Cole 1-2-2-4, Carson 8/3-2-4-27, Boeken 4-3-2-11. TOTALS: 17/3-7-14-50.