As Blue Valley and Blue Valley North players lined up for game ending high-fives, students inexplicably dressed in neon construction garb streamed down from one section of the bleachers and packed behind the home sideline in Stilwell, Kan.
They were anxious, raring to push past the few security guards to mob their fellow classmates. They wanted to celebrate.
On the court, the North Mustangs wanted to do the same thing. They slapped hands with the final Blue Valley Tiger in line then rushed to midcourt to accept their plaque. The Mustangs defeated the Tigers 58-55 to win a Class 6A substate final on Friday night and secured a spot in the Kansas state basketball tournament for the first time since 2014.
It was time to celebrate.
"These past few years, we've stubbed our toes on this game," said Keilon Hunter, who was a freshman on the 2014 team along with fellow senior Colby Bullock. "The first time we played Blue Valley this year, they killed us and it opened our eyes. This game tonight could've been at our place if we had won, and we knew that coming in. We responded well."
Before any of the Mustangs were free to shed tears after the final buzzer — and a few did, overcome by the significance of their accomplishment — they had to shake off Blue Valley's tenuous grip on the game lead.
The Tigers played the Mustangs close, mounting two advantages of seven points before taking a 29-26 lead at halftime. The Mustangs went on a 9-3 run to open the second half but still trailed the Tigers by three when the quarter ended.
Then Miles Emery, who scored eight of his 21 total points in the third quarter for North, gave his teammates a 46-45 lead to open the fourth quarter. The Mustangs mounted an 8-6 run on their way to a 52-51 advantage with 1:01 remaining.
Blue Valley ratcheted up the intensity in that final minute to give three-point shooters like Harry Van Dyne and Tyler Geiman another chance to lead Blue Valley back to state for the first time since 2004.
But even when Geiman gave the Tigers a one-point lead after a timeout, the Mustangs forced Blue Valley to make mistakes. The Tigers had committed three fouls with 1:01 left in the game. At the buzzer, they had matched North's second-half total of nine. Bullock knocked down four free throws in the final five seconds as a result.
"Our goal was to be right there with a couple minutes to go," North coach Ryan Phifer said. "We were down with a couple fouls to go. They (Blue Valley) started to pick up their intensity and get going but our guys handled it pretty well."
The Mustangs will travel west Wednesday for the 6A quarterfinals at Wichita State's Charles Koch arena. Joining them will be Blue Valley Northwest, which beat Gardner Edgerton 72-35 at home on Friday night.