The Andover Central boys basketball team defeated Maize South in a back-and-forth affair by a score of 55-50 on Saturday to qualify for their fourth straight state tournament. The matchup marked the third time the league rivals had faced each other this season, but this one was clearly the most important.

Last month, the Mavericks handed the Jaguars their second loss of the season on their home court.

The two teams battled through a physical contest which featured plenty of emotion and three technical fouls, but in the end the Jaguars prevailed.

The Jaguars’ senior class has never missed the state tournament in their four years with the program, but according to senior Easton Leedom, this one felt the best.

“When we play Maize South, it’s always a back-and-forth every game. Last time we played them, we lost on this court. It feels good to finally get a win back after we faced adversity,” explained Leedom.”

With the win over Maize South, the Jaguars escaped one of the toughest sub-state brackets in the state that featured many state-ranked teams.

“The 5A West was as good a bracket as I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” said Andover Central head coach Jesse Herrmann.

“We’re happy to get out of this bracket and get into the next bracket. Our guys are excited. We’ll have a chance to do something special. Tonight was as physical and emotional a battle as we’ve had, with the stakes a little bit higher. The game came down to who was going to make a few more plays in the last three minutes, and we happened to do it. It was back-and-forth, but hats off to them. They’re a great team.”

The Jaguars came ready to play and jumped out to an early 10-2 lead in the first quarter. Maize South, led by junior Trey Reid, fought their way back to within one at the half.

Maize South took the lead early in the second half, but both sides continued to trade baskets and neither could pull away from the other.

Central senior Easton Leedom knocked down free throw after free throw in the second half, thanks to fouls by Maize South on four different three-point shots by Leedom.

At the end of the third quarter, Maize South had a chance to go up by four points, but went 0-for-3 at the free throw line and led by just one point going into the fourth quarter.

For most of the fourth quarter, neither team could put together a lead of more than three points as both sides knew it was going to come down to the last few plays.

With less than 20 seconds remaining in the game, Central junior Xavier Bell iced the game with a breakaway and-one dunk to put the Jaguars up 55-49. Unfortunately, Maize South’s Trey Reid suffered a knee injury during the play. Many Maize South fans seemed to believe that Bell had intentionally tried to harm Reid on the play as many of the fans were booing and even shouting directly at Bell. Bell was issued a technical foul following the dunk for pushing off of Reid as they both landed together. After celebrating the game-sealing dunk, Bell’s joy quickly turned to sadness as he realized his opponent, and friend, was down with a leg injury.

After the game, both players took to twitter to clear things up. “It’s just the physicality of the sport,” said Reid.

“Me and [Xavier] have played together and against each other for years. He did not purposefully try to hurt me.”

Bell also stated that the two are long-time friends and that he would never intentionally hurt another player.

Andover Central will head to the state tournament with plenty of experience. Seniors Easton Leedom and Braden Belt have played at the varsity level in each of the last four state tournament runs.

“Those two have been gamers since they came in,” said Herrmann.

“Experience is on our side when we go up there.”

Andover Central is the No. 4 seed with a record of 19-3 and will face No. 5 Pittsburg (18-3). The first-round match will take place on Thursday, March 7 at 4:45 p.m. at White Auditorium in Emporia.