Emporia — The Firebird certainly isn't an early bird.
Free State High's boys basketball team staged a furious fourth-quarter comeback, but it wasn't enough to overcome an early funk in Thursday's 48-47 loss to Shawnee Heights in the first round of the Emporia Tipoff Classic.
"We got off to a slow start," said FSHS sophomore swingman Dain Dillingham, who scored a career- and game-high 15 points in just his second varsity outing. "When you dig yourself a hole like that, it's hard to get back out. But I was proud of us that we fought back. We obviously didn't give up."
After falling behind 13-2 to open the game, the Firebirds (1-1) answered with a 14-3 run to knot the game at 16. But Free State endured a drought of Death Valley proportions, scoring just two points during the ensuing 11:12 which spanned the second and third quarters.
The Thunderbirds (2-0) used an 18-2 surge to build a game-high 16-point lead at 34-18.
"The intensity wasn't there in the first half," FSHS junior center Keith Wooden said. "We didn't have the big crowd like we did in the first game. We felt we could have picked it up more on defense."
Big crowd? The Firebirds and Thunderbirds hardly had enough fans for a respectable Christmas party. There were only about 100 fans dotting cavernous White Auditorium.
The only thing worse than trying to shoot with a hostile crowd as a background might be using a non-crowd backdrop. Free State hit just eight of its first 24 shots, including missing all seven three-point attempts.
That's a far cry from the Firebirds sizzling shooting in their 83-67 season-opening victory Friday over Topeka Washburn Rural.
"Our outside shooting, without question," FSHS coach Jack Schreiner said of the difference between the first two games. "I'm not sure we played any better defense in the first game. It was just more apparent because our outside shots weren't going in. I keep harping on these kids, 'Your defense is the only thing that's constant. There's going to be nights when you don't score and tonight was a perfect example so you have to make sure the other team doesn't score.'
"We didn't do that. It came down to a defensive stand and we didn't get it done."
Despite a dismal offensive output, Free State did fight back. The Firebirds used a pair of 10-0 surges one to open and one to close the fourth quarter to claw their way back.
After back-to-back threes by senior swingman Andron Cruse and a layin by Wooden, Free State took its first and only lead at 47-46 with 39 seconds to play before being downed by two late free throws by Heights' John Meissner with :23.8 showing.
"Each time they got a lead, we came right back," Schreiner said. "I'm really proud of that. That's a positive for us because we never quit, came back and got into it. That proves we can do it."
FSHS junior point guard Neil Dougherty's last-chance shot through traffic in the lane clanked off the rim in the closing seconds.
Dougherty finished with team-highs of three assists and three steals. Wooden had a double-double, scoring 14 points and adding 13 rebounds, two blocks and two steals.
"It's good, but we didn't get the win so it really doesn't matter," Wooden said. "We set a goal, we didn't want to lose this season. We felt if we played good defense we could do anything that we wanted to do."
The only player on either team who did what he wanted to do as a shooter was Dillingham, who was 6-of-7, including 1-for-1 on three-pointers. His accuracy might have been somewhat surprising considering it was his first game in the Emporia State arena.
"Nothing surprises me about him anymore," Schreiner said.
Dillingham, who also had two steals that led to four points on back-to-back possessions, said playing in the season opener last week helped him relax on Thursday.
"I was a little bit nervous coming into the game, but really it was OK. I got most of the jitters out last game," Dillingham said. "I just got good and warmed up. I felt coming out that I was going to be shooting good. I've been working real hard on the jump shot."
The Firebirds, ranked sixth in Class 6A in the coaches' poll, will face the loser of the Olathe East-Garden City game at 3 p.m. today.
"Hopefully we can come out (today) and put on a little better showing, come out with a little more fire," Dillingham said. "I think we're fine. We're going to go home, everybody's going to get a good night's sleep and we'll be ready to play."
Sports writer Robert Sinclair can be reached at 832-7185.