The Seward County Saints certainly didn't play their best on Thursday night in Koch Arena in Wichita as they took on the Neosho County Panthers in the Region VI Quarterfinals. The good news is, the Saints still managed to find a way to win, knocking off the Panthers 73-68 in what looked more like a black and blue division football game than a crisp game between two of the higher flying teams in the Jayhawk Conference.
It was a long wait to play Thursday night for the Saints as they watched a triple overtime game between Northwest Kansas Tech and Independence set the tournament back by over an hour to start the day. The Saints finally got underway at just after 8:00 and Seward was slow coming out of the gates, falling behind 9-2 to upstart Neosho County who was making their first trip to the quarterfinal round of the Region VI Tournament in nine seasons. A three from Malcolm Hill-Bey got the Saints going and another three later on from Niem Stevenson gave Seward their first lead of the game, 11-10, with 15:25 to go in the half. Stevenson connected on another three to give Seward a 14-10 lead and the Saints had a chance to go up by seven later on, but Stevenson missed a wide open dunk and Neosho came the other way and nailed a three to get back to within two, 22-20 with 7:36 to go in the first half. The teams traded buckets to 28-28 before a mini 5-0 Seward run put the Saints on top 33-28 with 2:07 to go in the half. But, it was the Panthers who closed the half with the momentum on their side, scoring the final five points before the break to tie the game at 33 at the half.
Both teams shot 36% from the field in the half while the two teams combined for 23 first half turnovers. Neosho outscored Seward 18-5 in bench points and had 8 second chance points to the Saints two. Stevenson led Seward with 15 points and 4 rebounds while Hill-Bey pitched in 9 first half points in the defensive battle.
Neosho grabbed a quick lead out of the break, but a Stevenson three put the Saints in front by one two minutes in. Neosho answered with a three to make it 40-38 Panthers, but minutes later Hill-Bey hit another Seward three and Stevenson flushed one home after a Hill-Bey steal to put the Saints up 44-42 with 15:39 to go. The Panthers later tied the game at 46 before a huge deep three by Quentin Purtue with time winding down on the shot clock put Seward up 49-46 with just over 14:00 to go. Seward continued to try to extend their lead as they went up six on two occasions, but Neosho kept themselves in the game with a big three to make it 54-51 with 10:46 remaining. Seward stepped up their defensive effort and with that Neosho went ice cold. The Saints slowly built their lead up to six at 61-56 and continued to keep Neosho from getting anything on the offensive end as they stretched it to 65-56 with 1:59 to go. Seward had a chance to put the game away at the free throw line but miss after miss allowed Neosho to hang around and the Panthers first field goal in over 9:30 got the Panthers back to within two possessions at 67-61 with 1:05 remaining. The Saints continued their struggles from the line, but thankfully Neosho couldn't find a way to score as the gap remained six until late when a pair of Seward free throws made it an eight point game and the game just about out of reach. Neosho made a late three but that was it for the Panthers as Seward held on to win 73-68.
Seward held Neosho to just 29% shooting in the second half and 32% shooting in the game while the Saints certainly didn't torch the nets themselves, shooting just 41% against one of the leagues worst defenses. Seward turned it over 23 times in the win while Neosho gave most of those right back with 22 turnovers.
Stevenson scored a game high 30 in the win and also grabbed 8 rebounds for the Saints. Hill-Bey and Purtue each scored 16, Purtue scoring 14 of the 16 in the second half. Raoul Mentor didn't light up the scoreboard offensively for Seward, but the freshman forward was a factor on the defensive end, finishing with a career high 7 blocked shots for the Saints on the inside.
The Saints improve to 23-9 overall on the year with the victory and will now meet the Pratt Beavers in the semifinal round of the Region VI Tournament Friday at 7:00 at Koch Arena. Neosho County ends their season at 21-11 overall after winning their first Region VI Tournament game in nine seasons last Saturday against Garden City.