Free State heeds coach, rallies for first victory – FSHS boys 71, Park HIll (Mo.) 56

? Free State High boy’s coach Jack Schreiner didn’t give a lot of insight into why his team returned to the court two minutes late from halftime, but he hinted that it had to something to do with extra defensive instruction.

Judging by the way the Firebirds returned to the court, they received the message.

Free State (1-1) erased a six-point halftime deficit and used a 16-0 run in the third quarter to take command of the game. The Firebirds continued to pull away in the fourth quarter and picked up their first win of the season in a 71-56 pounding of Park Hill (Mo.) South (0-3) in the Gardner Invitational.

The first two quarters were anything but spectacular by Schreiner’s standards. The Firebirds matched the Panthers shot for shot for the first six minutes, but gave up a 9-2 run at the end of the first quarter. The second quarter wasn’t much different. The teams traded short runs, and Park Hill South led, 32-26.

The Firebirds had played decent defense up to that point, forcing eight turnovers — including a 10-second violation — but Schreiner wasn’t impressed.

“We weren’t playing like we wanted it,” he said. “We were soft. This is a very aggressive defense that we’ve designed, and we were being very soft.”

Schreiner’s halftime speech was anything but fluffy.

He wasn’t too concerned that his team made just 31 percent of its shots in the first half.

He was pleased that the Firebirds had only five turnovers.

But he was ticked about the defense. Ray Trice torched Free State for 11 of his team-high 19 points in the first half. Panthers guard Matt Dougherty had easy layups.

After preaching all preseason about defensive toughness and playing chest-to-chest with their opponents, Schreiner wanted the Firebirds execute and experience the results.

The Firebirds emerged from the locker room late but refocused. Schreiner wore a scowl as he returned to the bench, but it quickly turned to a smile.

Free State gave up five points early, but then exploded with a 16-0 run that was sparked entirely by its defense. The Panthers turned the ball over on 11 of 15 possessions in that 4:24 span and crossed midcourt just six times.

FSHS seniors Tyler Blankenship and Adam Bellinder executed backcourt traps perfectly, while Sam Buhler batted away passes.

Suddenly that six-point deficit was a 47-37 lead.

“During halftime, coach really got on us about playing defense, and we just came out hot,” Bellinder said. “We had so much adrenaline. Coach’s speech just got us pumped up, and we came out playing hard.”

The Firebirds hit just 37 percent of their shots but had just one turnover in the fourth quarter and nine for the night. Dain Dillingham led the way offensively with 19 points, while Cole Douglas scored 13, and Brady Morningstar added 10.

Points weren’t the stat that Schreiner cared about, however. He was proud of the 25 turnovers his team caused and the fact that it held the Panthers to 38-percent shooting. He said he attributed most of that to the third quarter, which he said set the tone for how intense he expected his team to play.

“For those four minutes in the third quarter, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do,” Schreiner said. “That’s how we have to play.”

FSHS will face Tulsa (Okla.) Union at 6 p.m. Friday in the tournament’s second round.