Lawrence High's girls enter their Class 6A sub-state tournament playing their best basketball of the season.
The Lions won three of their final five games to finish the regular season at 8-12, including a 51-48 victory over Leavenworth in the finale in which LHS rallied with a 21-6 run in the fourth quarter.
First-year LHS coach Kristin Mallory knew it would take time for her squad to gel.
"They were having to learn a whole new system," said Mallory, whose Lions will open sub-state against Leavenworth (14-6) at 6 tonight at Olathe North. "I think the older girls are starting to pick things up and starting to flourish."
Sophomore Josie Polk and senior Mandy Amyx led Lawrence with 21 points and 19 points, respectively, in last week's victory against Leavenworth.
Mallory imagines Leavenworth hasn't forgotten the loss, especially since it spoiled the Pioneers' chances of sharing the Sunflower League title with Shawnee Mission Northwest.
"We know what they do and we know what we need to work on," Mallory said. "Since we came out on top, I'm sure there's a big revenge factor for them. They were tied for the league championship and we took them out of that. We're going to come into the game with a bull's-eye."
Polk is the lone Lion averaging in double digits (10.9 ppg). Four of her teammates average between seven and eight points a game sophomore Cherrale Ricks (7.8), Amyx (7.5), sophomore Rachael Klingler (7.4) and junior Leigh DeBiasse (7.1).
Klingler, who had surgery on her broken nose last Friday, returned to practice on Wednesday and should be able to play tonight. Klingler will wear a protective mask at sub-state, Mallory said.
The Lawrence-Leavenworth winner will meet the Olathe North-Olathe East winner at 6 p.m. Saturday for a berth in next week's state tournament at White Auditorium in Emporia.
The Lions, who average 49.7 points a game and surrender 51.4 a game, haven't qualified for state since 1993. Lawrence's last sub-state victory came in 1996.
Firebirds to face Topeka
In one year, Free State High's girls will have transformed from sub-state favorite to what they hope is sub-state spoiler.
The Firebirds, who qualified for state for the first time last season, are 6-14 and will meet No. 1 seed Topeka (17-3) at 7:30 tonight at the Class 6A sub-state at Free State. Last season, Free State opened sub-state with a 45-31 victory over Topeka before advancing to state with a win over Olathe East.
"Last year there was a feeling of some responsibility since we had gradually worked to be the No. 2 seed," FSHS coach Craig Hershiser said. "We were tight in that first game against Topeka last year because of expectations. This year we're pretty relaxed."
The Free State-Topeka winner will meet the Topeka Washburn Rural-Olathe South winner at 6 p.m. Saturday for a state berth.
Free State enters sub-state with a six-game losing streak, its longest since going 0-21 in the Firebirds' inaugural 1997-98 season.
Senior Lauren Wright averages 12.3 points a game to lead the Firebirds. Wright has 46 of Free State's 50 three-pointers. Since scoring 23 points against Shawnee Mission South on Feb. 12, Wright didn't score in double figures in her final five games of the regular season.
Topeka, ranked No. 6 in the Class 6A coaches' poll, is led by 6-foot-2 center Crystal Kemp, a Kansas University signee. She recently was nominated for the inaugural McDonald's All-American girls basketball game.
Kemp averaged 21.4 points a game to lead Topeka's seven high schools.
"She's pretty tough," Hershiser said. "She was a good player last year and I think she's even better this year. She combines size with hand-eye coordination, has good balance and agility. She clearly can put up some big numbers scoring and rebounding on a given night."
Larry Zientara is in his first season coaching Topeka. Zientara guided Lawrence High to a undefeated season in 1984, when the Lions captured the Class 6A state title.