Even after their lead shrunk from 12 to three, the Maize Eagles went back on the court smiling.
Maize beat No. 3 Mill Valley 44-37 in the first round of the Class 5A girls basketball tournament Thursday. The difference in body language was much wider than the score.
The Maize bench was the loudest group in the Kansas Expocentre during the game. The players on the court celebrated every basket, forced turnover and drawn foul in the first quarter as they did in the fourth.
"We always push each other to smile and have a good time," junior Alexis Cauthon said. "That's one of the things we talk about when we're in the locker room together. One of the things we yell together is, 'Have fun.'"
The Eagles were outstanding defensively but probably shouldn't have been.
Mill Valley's third tallest player is 5-foot-10. Its tallest is 6-2. The tall trio combined for 30 of the Jaguars' 37 points. Maize was outscored 24-12 in the paint, but even when Mill Valley scored, Maize's defense often caused frustrations with tipped balls and fouls the Jaguars felt should have been called.
During Mill Valley's fourth-quarter comeback, cutting the deficit to three, there were few smiles or thunderous cheers like there were from the Maize side of the floor.
"It really helps if you have that positivity, that smile on your face pushing your players to be their best," Cauthon said.
Maize had seen size like Mill Valley's this season, three times. The Eagles lost to Derby twice in the regular season and once in the midseason tournament final. The Panthers' 6-foot-4 center Kennedy Brown scored 34 points in three games.
"We discussed it when we were watching film and practicing," Cauthon said. "It's just like we're playing Kennedy Brown. As long as you got your hands up in their face, you can shut anybody down."
Maize finished runner-up in 5A last season to St. Thomas Aquinas, the team the Eagles will meet in the semifinals at 3 p.m. Friday. Maize was the No. 1 seed and was 21-3 by the time it reached the final in 2017.
This season, the Eagles returned only three players and entered the state tournament as the No. 6 seed with a 16-6 record.
"We came into this tournament as a celebration for our season," coach Jerrod Handy said. "I didn't know how this young team was gonna play, but we just wanted to have a good time and celebrate our time together."
Nothing changes with the win, Cauthon said. Maize will come out with the same energy in the semifinals Friday that it had Thursday. In fact, there might be more.
"People have counted us out from the beginning of the season since we lost four major seniors," she said. "We're so motivated to go into the next day and play our best."