Free State High is having one fab Feb.
The Firebirds continued their fine February with a 64-57 nonleague boys basketball victory over No. 3-ranked Lawrence High on Tuesday in the FSHS gym.
"We're finally playing the way everybody thought we should play," said FSHS coach Jack Schreiner, whose squad improved to 9-10 overall and is 5-1 this month. "We finally pulled one out at the end and didn't let it slip away. We beat a great team and I feel very good about this."
Tied at 10-all, the Firebirds scored the final six points of the first quarter and never trailed in the final three periods, although LHS (15-4) made a late push to catch Free State. FSHS led by 20 points Â 55-35Â with four minutes left before the Lions rallied with a 22-6 run to pull within four with 41 seconds left. FSHS senior Damian Harden made a free throw and teammate Neil Dougherty made two free throws in the final 30 seconds to seal the Firebirds' sixth victory in seven games.
"This game was fun because I kind of had a feeling we would hang on and win," said Harden, who scored seven points and snared a key defensive rebound after LHS tried to pull within two with 33 seconds left. "I was hoping we could get revenge from the last time (a 53-44 loss to LHS on Dec. 21) and it was at our place."
The Lions had won five in a row before falling to Free State, led by junior Keith Wooden's 19 points and seven rebounds.
"We started too late with our comeback," LHS coach Chris Davis said. "The Free State rivalry is such a strong rivalry and emotions take over and you want the game so bad. Emotionally we pushed ourselves too much and it took us awhile to gather ourselves. We finally played like a team at the end."
LHS junior forward Brandon McAnderson scored all eight of his points in the final four minutes. His driving lay-in with 41 seconds pulled the Lions within four Â 61-57.
"We started to use each other too late, started to play as a team too late," McAnderson said. "As long as we play as a team we can do that all the time. We were playing an individualistic game and we don't play like that and that's not our style. When we're together we're pretty good."
Free State was good, especially on the boards and defensively. The Firebirds outrebounded the Lions 36-27 and had a 17-9 advantage on the boards at halftime, when they led 32-20.
"We've all known that they (the Firebirds) are a good team and it was a matter of time," Davis said.
FSHS senior Sam Strickler-Hut had six rebounds, including two key boards in the fourth quarter. He also blocked three shots in the final period.
"I thought Sam Strickler-Hut played a tremendous game on help defense and altered some shots," Schreiner said.
Wooden, who was limited to eight points in the first meeting with LHS, thrived against the Lions in the rematch.
"Keith moved and demanded the ball and wanted the ball," Schreiner said. "When he does that, we're a much better team."
Wooden isn't surprised by Free State's late surge.
"We're a tough team to play this time of year," said Wooden, who is four points from setting the school record for points in a season. "Anything can happen."
LHS was led by senior D.J. Watkins (15 points) and senior Stephen Vinson (12 points, nine assists). Senior Jamie Peterson had 10 points and eight rebounds.
The victory over LHS was Schreiner's 100th win in nine seasons as a high school head coach. Schreiner coached four years at LHS before taking over Free State in 1997.
"All that means is that I'm old enough to hang around to get 100," Schreiner said. "Had it been after five years, you could have said, 'Ooh, good job, coach.'"
The Firebirds lead the intracity series 6-4, including a 4-1 record in the Free State gym. FSHS and LHS could meet again next week in a sub-state final.
"I guarantee every coach in the Sunflower League doesn't want to match up with Free State (in the postseason)," Davis said.
Free State will end the regular season on Friday at Shawnee Mission North. LHS will play host to Leavenworth on Friday. The Lions need a victory to tie for the Sunflower League title.
"I think this will give us greater focus for the Leavenworth game and when sub-state starts," Davis said.
With the win and Topeka's 58-56 victory over Topeka Highland Park on Tuesday, FSHS has clinched the sixth seed for sub-state and will open with Olathe East at a site to be determined. LHS is the No. 2 seed and will be grouped with FSHS and O-East. The fourth team will be either Topeka Washburn Rural or Leavenworth.
Sub-state pairings will be announced on Saturday.