PRAIRIE VILLAGE Losers of two straight games, Free State High's boys basketball team's marvelous first quarter against Shawnee Mission East on Friday ensured it wouldn't be three in a row.
The Firebirds held the Lancers to just three field goals and forced four turnovers, taking a 14-point lead at the end of the quarter, before cruising to a 68-62 victory at East.
"I told the guys before the game, 'There's no way we're losing three straight,'" FSHS coach Jack Schreiner said. "This, really, was as good as we've played in quite a while. I don't think we've come out this intense, probably since Olathe South."
In that game -- a 56-51 loss on Jan. 14 -- the Firebirds played with Class 6A's top-ranked team until faltering at the end. FSHS (10-6 overall, 4-3 in Sunflower League play) is 3-4 since, but Friday's game displayed a team that played with something to prove.
Except for rebounding, the Firebirds did everything well. They made 59 percent (29 of 49) of their shots to East's 38.5 (25 of 65), dished 16 assists and forced East into a one-dimensional offense. The Lancers' only scoring option, senior guard Kyle Zeller, had 18 points, but that was because FSHS went away from its defensive game plan.
"I wanted to start Cameron (Karlin) on him," Schreiner said. "But someone talked me out of it and we ended up using Dain (Dillingham) on him. Dain did a fine job, but Zeller's so good at posting people up, we had to go away from that."
So in the third quarter, FSHS put 6-foot-9 senior Keith Wooden on the 6-2 Zeller, forcing Zeller to put up off-balance jump shots to avoid Wooden's long arms.
"I wanted to guard him," Wooden said. "I love the challenge. I'm bigger than he is, and I wanted to make it tough."
When Wooden picked up his third foul late in the third quarter, the 6-6 Karlin switched to Zeller, who didn't score another basket.
Without Zeller scoring, East (8-8, 4-4 ) couldn't match the Firebirds' pace. FSHS pushed its lead to 59-43 with 5:24 remaining in the fourth, as Wooden couldn't be stopped down low. He scored 15 of his game-high 21 points in the second half, the second straight game he has had more than 20.
"It seemed like he had more than that," Schreiner said. "He was really active on both ends. I thought he played great."
When Wooden wasn't scoring, seniors Bijai Jones and Karlin were. Jones had 16 points on eight-of-12 shooting, while Karlin hit for 15, including three-for-three from three-point range.
East cut into the lead late in the game when Free State's starters were out, but the outcome was never in doubt.
It was the perfect end to a so-so eight-game road swing for FSHS.
The Firebirds haven't played in Lawrence since Jan. 14 against Olathe South. They end the regular season with three of four games at home, and the other at Lawrence High, which appeals to Schreiner.
"Oh, jeez, I can't remember the last time we wore the whites (uniforms)," he said. "This has been one long trip."