Gardner As the final seconds ticked off the clock during Free State High's lopsided loss Friday night to Tulsa (Okla.) Union, Firebird coach Jack Schreiner approached the scorers table and smiled at the game officials.
"I'm glad we got to play these guys," he said.
Not exactly the sentiment one would expect from a coach whose team had just been beaten, 93-71, and denied a berth in the championship game of the Trailblazer Shootout at Gardner-Edgerton High.
Then again, Tulsa Union isn't the kind of basketball team that the Firebirds likely will face this year in Kansas.
"I am really glad that we got to play a team that is that good, and we were able to play well and learn from the experience," said Schreiner, whose 1-2 squad will play Shawnee Heights at 4:30 p.m. today in the third-place game of the tourney.
The Thunderbirds knocked off the home-team Blazers, 62-42, Friday night.
While Union is known for its fine football teams, the Redskins showed their athleticism extends to the basketball court.
Two senior guards -- Clent Stewart and Mike Bontragerr -- presented the most problems for Firebirds.
Stewart, a 6-foot-4 wing guard, gave Free State fits by attacking the rim on his way to scoring 25 points.
Bontragerr, who also is 6-4, did the majority of his damage from the outside -- knocking down five three-pointers while scoring a game-high 31 points.
Union had plenty of other weapons in the post as well, but Free State was in the game until their lack of height and athleticism compared to Union's finally took its toll.
"No offense to anyone in the Sunflower League, but this will probably be one of the best teams we'll play all season," said Firebird Dain Dillingham, who led Free State with 19 points. "It was a great test early, and I think we proved to ourselves that we are capable of playing with a team of their caliber."
The Firebirds controlled the first quarter, hitting 10 of 18 shots while slowing Union with its full-court press to take a 24-22 lead.
Free State started to slip in the second quarter, though, when several Firebirds took hurried long-range jumpers. Free State was 0-for-7 behind the arc and just 3-of-13 overall. Meanwhile the Redskins were rolling offensively.
Bontragerr went on a 9-0 run by himself to give Union a 38-28 lead. The Redskins outscored Free State 22-11 in the quarter.
Union edged even more ahead in the third, but couldn't pull away completely because Free State's defensive pressure began to create turnovers.
"We're still really new in learning our system," Schreiner said of his run-and-jump defensive style.
The scheme definitely was working well into the fourth quarter.
A quick lay-in by Cole Douglas off a fancy feed from Dillingham, and a drive by Dillingham cut Union's lead to 10 at 70-60 with 7:22 to go.
It turned out to be the Firebirds' last chance, though, because Union closed the game on a 23-11 run.
"I think if we would have done things a little differently, we could have kept the score closer," Schreiner said. "I'm not saying we would have won even then. But, who knows if a couple shots would have fallen.
"But I really wanted to pressure them and try our defense against a team with their athleticism. These kind of games in December is what we're trying to learn from."
Dillingham led the way offensively, and Brady Morningstar added 14 and Douglas 12.
Dillingham said despite the lopsided look of the loss, the Firebirds were somewhat content with how they fared against a top-notched team.
"I know we're 1-2, and I'm not sure what others are saying about us, but I'm really excited about the rest of this season," Dillingham said.