LOVELAND – There was no shortage of big moments for Sedgwick County’s girls basketball team Saturday night.

Trying to hold off a determined Merino squad in the Class 2A championship game – a Rams team that knows the Cougars as well as anyone – Sedgwick County utilized the team approach. Six players had key points in the second half, none bigger than freshman Lainee Nein’s effort from the free-throw line in the final minute. It added up a 47-43 victory over Merino at Budweiser Events Center to give the Cougars their first state championship.

“I’ve dreamt of this my entire life,” Sedgwick County senior Jensen Renquist said. “To have it now, it’s surreal.”

The Cougars were just 3-3 in the Lower Platte League on Feb. 4 after a loss to Merino. But the team won their final four regular-season games – including a one-point triumph over 1A state champion Briggsdale – and then won the district tournament thanks to a key victory over the Rams.

Sedgwick County (22-5) went 5-0 in the state tournament, finishing the year on a 12-game winning streak.

“We knew what it was going to take,” Renquist said. “I think that in the long run we just gave it our all.”

The Cougars led the entire way Saturday night, but a lead that hit 10 points in the fourth quarter shrunk to two at 43-41 with 37.5 seconds remaining after Merino’s Brooklyn Sutter hit a 3-pointer and Jaylyn Lynch followed with two big free throws.

With Sedgwick County entering the bonus, Nein went 4-of-6 from the free-throw line in the final 36.4 seconds. She hit the front-end of a 1-and-1 on all three occasions.

“We’ve got our freshman stepping up and hitting big shot after big shot,” Cougars coach Scott Dille said. “But that (happened) because everyone else was willing to share the ball and give her that opportunity.”

Nein led the team with 13 points, and Renquist added 10. Leading scorer Abigail Dille had nine points, but only one in the second half. Avery Goddard chipped in with eight, and seniors Emily Fowler and Kierra Ehnes also had crucial points.

“That’s the thing I think we’ve been trying to stress to these girls all year long,” Dille said. “You’re a lot more dangerous when they don’t have to worry about one girl or two girls. We were creating opportunities for each other to be successful.”

Dille said of the three games the team played this season, Saturday night’s championship was the closest.

“I feel like all three games were pretty similar,” Dille said. “This time it was just kind of neck-and-neck. Honestly I really feel like it was going to be a tough challenge because that’s a great basketball team that will be back because they don’t lose a whole lot.”

Makenna Sutter scored a game-high 14 points to pace Merino (23-4), and Lynch added nine. The Rams have only three seniors on the roster, and Makenna Sutter is the only junior.

Dille’s team will put in the work to be back as well. The program hadn’t enjoyed as much success in the sport when he took over four years ago, but two volleyball titles and now a girls basketball crown have the community eager for more.

“This group of girls has really put in the time. Everything they do, they work super hard, they love each other,” Dille said. “They’ve had success in volleyball, and now they get a little success in basketball. It’s huge for our community.”