Emporia — Free State High boys basketball coach Jack Schreiner used to joke about how the Emporia Tipoff Classic should be called the Annual Firebird Fourth-Place Finish.
Free State finished fourth in the tournament's first three years.
Now Schreiner would be lucky to have such a chuckle.
For the second straight year, the Firebirds had to settle for seventh place
FSHS defeated Kansas City Schlagle, 56-46, Saturday morning at White Auditorium.
"It's getting real old," Schreiner said of his team's lack of success 5-10 all time at the prestigious tournament.
Still, Schreiner was pleased with Saturday's showing.
"This is a gut-check game," Schreiner said of the 10 a.m. tip-off. "You really see who wants to play. Getting up at 7:30, driving an hour and a half and getting ready to play is tough."
Neither team managed to get into any kind of rhythm early in the nearly empty arena.
Play was sluggish and both teams' shooting percentages were dismal.
But Free State managed to pull away from a first-quarter tie to lead 21-18 at halftime.
Senior Andron Cruse and junior Bijai Jones combined for 13 points and helped offset a meager 9-of-23 shooting effort that included a 22-percent shooting from three-point range.
"We never really got into a flow," said Cruse, who finished with 11 points and six assists. "It's tough to come back up here and get pumped for this game."
Immediately after the break, the Stallions' Thomas Ray who scored a team-high 14 points completed a drive to tie the score at 22.
The tie would be short-lived.
Jones grabbed a loose ball in the lane after Neil Dougherty bounced it off his foot and gave Free State a 24-22 lead with a layin on the next possession.
The Firebirds wouldn't trail again, mostly because they found a way to get the ball to junior center Keith Wooden, who scored 17 of his game-high 21 points in the second half. The 6-foot-9 Wooden also pulled down nine rebounds.
Wooden set a tournament record with 43 rebounds in three games, eclipsing the previous mark of 38 by Emporia's Bret Wise in 1999.
"He had a tremendous tournament," Schreiner said. "He's a very good player, and we did a better job of feeding off of him today."
Wooden finished the tournament with 57 points.
"We were really playing a lot like individuals," he said. "Today we moved the ball around and opened up an inside and outside game.
"We played two pretty good teams, and I think we took a lot from those games."
Sophomore Dain Dillingham came off the bench to add 12 points.
Free State now has 12 days before its next game. The opponent? City rival Lawrence High on Dec. 21 at LHS.
"We kind of wished we could keep things going and play them soon," Cruse said. "But with the time off will have a lot of time to practice and get ready for them."
Wooden knows that game will be a big test.
"It's a big thing, the whole city will be there and the gym will be rockin'," he said. "We feel that we can be playing for the state championship by the end of the year. Now we have to get ready and do the things necessary to achieve that goal."