MANTON — Manton scrapped and clawed and made a game of it on its home floor Friday, but St. Francis big man Noah Phillips was able to answer at the right time, enabling the Gladiators to hold on for a tense 54-51 victory in the Class C district finals.
The Gladiators (12-11) advance to Monday’s regional opener on their home floor against East Jordan. Manton finished with a 10-12 mark — 8-4 at home.
“I’m so proud of my guys,” said smiling St. Francis coach Keith Haske amid the on-court celebration after the final buzzer sounded. “We had the chance to put things away a couple of times, but Manton wouldn’t let us do it. They kept fighting and fighting and coming back and we had to keep battling to stay in front.
“We overcame a hostile atmosphere and we overcame a load of foul trouble. It’s nice to be able to walk out of here with the win.”
The Gladiators appeared to have things well in hand early in the second half with a 35-19 lead after senior Tanner Kenney, who finished with a team-high 18 points, made a mid-court steal and converted it into a breakaway layup.
Manton wouldn’t yield, however, in what was a physical dogfight of a contest. The Rangers, who lost two players to concussions following on-court collisions, gradually chipped away at the St. Francis lead, trimming the deficit from 16 points to five by the end of the third quarter as freshman wing Wyatt Baker heated up, scoring 10 of his game-high 23 points in a four-minute span, while fellow freshman Treh Helsel drained a triple and junior Chandler Shazri hit a jumper just before the buzzer.
When Baker turned a steal into a quick transition bucket at the outset of the fourth quarter, the St. Francis lead had dwindled to just three points, 43-40, and the Rangers — playing before a large, vocal home crowd — had seized the momentum.