Nearly a year has passed since Free State High's thrilling 53-51 victory over Lawrence High in the Class 6A sub-state boys basketball final at LHS.
If the Lions (16-4) and Firebirds (10-10) take care of business tonight at Free State, the squads will meet with a state berth on the line for the second year in a row. LHS, ranked fourth in 6A, will meet Leavenworth (8-12) at 6 tonight in the sub-state opener. FSHS and No. 5-ranked Olathe East (15-5) will follow approximately 7:30 p.m.
Cable Channel 6 will show a replay of the Lawrence-Leavenworth contest at 10:30 tonight and a replay of the FSHS-Olathe East contest at 11 a.m. Saturday.
LHS hasn't forgotten about last year's heartbreaker.
"That is absolutely a motivation," LHS coach Chris Davis said. "Our boys are aching to avenge that loss. Our direct goal is definitely to get to state."
LHS enters the sub-state tournament with its best record since 1995, the last time the Lions qualified for state. Lawrence won the state title that year.
The Lions closed the regular season last Friday with a 70-57 victory over Leavenworth. In fact, Lawrence's final three games were against the other three teams in its sub-state.
"We all realize the importance of every game," Davis said. "We're very focused on Leavenworth and focused on the big picture to get to the state tournament."
LHS is familiar with Free State and Olathe East. The Lions beat Olathe East, 65-61, on Feb. 16 and split two contests with Free State.
"This is one of the toughest sub-states in the state," Davis said. "Realistically, any of the four teams could come out of it. Free State or Olathe East is quite an opponent to have to face in the final."
LHS is led by senior guards D.J. Watkins (18.3 points per game) and Stephen Vinson (15.7 ppg). Watkins has made a school-record 100 three-pointers for his prep career, including 52 this season.
While Lawrence hasn't qualified for state in seven years, Free State will be trying for its third consecutive state berth. The last time a city boys basketball team reached state three years in a row was LHS in 1983-85.
"We have quite a few kids back that were part of that team last year that went to state," fifth-year FSHS coach Jack Schreiner said. "I think they understand the significance of sub-state."
The Firebirds, who won seven of their final eight regular-season games, have been thriving on their home court. FSHS is 6-2 at home with five straight wins in its gym since a 76-66 setback to Olathe East on Jan. 11.
"We like the fact that this tournament is at home," said Schreiner, whose squad was 2-7 in mid-January before finishing strong. "That should help us."
Free State will need help against Olathe East. The Firebirds are 0-7 all time against the Hawks. Sophomore Joey Mundweiler and senior Drew Mathews scored 23 points apiece to lead O-East past FSHS in January. Mundweiler hit 14 of 16 free throws, including 11 of 12 in the fourth quarter, while making his first varsity start.
"I'm real aware of that kid, especially after watching film from the Lawrence High game," Schreiner said of Mundweiler.
Free State's late-season surge coincided with Keith Wooden's offensive tear. Since scoring a season-low six points against Shawnee Mission South on Feb. 11, Wooden has scored 23, 27, 19 and 28 points. Wooden averaged 24.3 points and shot 64.8 percent from the field (35 of 54) during that four-game span and holds the school record for points in a season (330).
"When he plays hard, everybody feeds off that and we play better," Schreiner said of his 6-foot-9 center who hit two free throws in the final seconds to lift FSHS past LHS in last year's sub-state final. "The kids look to get him the ball more and that helps you."
The Lawrence-Leavenworth winner will meet the FSHS-Olathe East winner at 7:30 p.m. Saturday for a state berth. The 6A state tournament is next week in Emporia.