If Free State High boys basketball coach Jack Schreiner ever wondered just how important junior center Keith Wooden is to the Firebirds he found out on Tuesday night.
Wooden, who sat the first two-plus quarters after missing practice this week, came off the bench to ignite a furious rally as the Firebirds overcame Topeka High, 63-56, at the FSHS gym.
"It was one of those kinds of deals as a coach, when you have something like this you really hope the other kids really pick it up and really play their tails off," Schreiner said. "We were going to go as long as we could without playing him. He stepped in and did a great job.
"He didn't complain and he knew the consequences and I'm just really pleased."
The Trojans (9-6) held a game-high 14-point lead at 40-26 with 5:18 remaining in the third quarter when Wooden entered the game for the first time. After he checked in, Free State (5-9) closed the quarter on a 19-3 run, capped by sophomore Dain Dillingham's acrobatic three-point play at the buzzer, to take its first lead at 45-43.
After a Topeka basket tied the game, the Firebirds scored nine unanswered points and never led by less than four down the stretch.
Dillingham and Wooden combined for 21 of the Firebirds' 25 points off the bench scoring 11 and 10 respectively but it was junior point guard Neil Dougherty who shouldered the scoring load with a game-high 19 points.
"Keith was obviously very important to us, but Neil Dougherty played his tail off," Schreiner said. "I thought Neil played one of the better games he's had."
With Wooden watching, Dougherty scored 14 points in the first half thanks to a perfect 4-for-4 performance from three-point range.
"Those were just open shots," Dougherty explained. "I didn't get those by myself. It was my teammates getting me those shots and I was able to knock those down. Everyone had to pick it up without Keith in there. Then when Keith came back it added to it a lot. We made a little run there."
With Dougherty's father, Kansas University assistant coach Neil Dougherty, and KU coach Roy Williams in attendance, Free State won back-to-back games for the first time this season.
"It feels pretty good," Dougherty said. "It shows we can play with a pretty good team. I don't know how many wins they have, probably nine or 10. Honestly, I feel we should have about nine or 10 wins, but we haven't put it together."
The Firebirds, known for their trademark late-season surges, hope Tuesday's victory is the start of another sizz.
"I told them, 'Guys, we're so close. Let's us this game to get us over the hump and go from here,'" Schreiner said. "Obviously we've got to do things down the line now, but it sure makes it a lot easier."
Free State plays host to Shawnee Mission East at 7 p.m. Friday.