Bonner Springs — It wasn't stone, and it wasn't brick, but it was there nonetheless. And Free State High's girls basketball players hit it.
The Firebirds ran into the proverbial wall midway through the third quarter and bowed to Junction City, 44-39, in Saturday's championship game of the Metro Prep Classic.
"We were mentally and physically worn down," Free State coach Bryan Duncan said, "and we couldn't do anything about it."
Duncan knew all about Junction City's incessant and insidious pressure defense, yet early on the Firebirds went through the Blue Jays' fullcourt defense like it was a swinging door.
"The first half we played great," Duncan said, "and then depth became a factor."
Free State rolled to a lead of as many as 10 points in the second quarter and went into halftime with a comfortable 29-22 advantage. Two minutes into the third quarter, Free State was still in command, leading 33-24.
That's when the curtain dropped. Junction City outscored the fatigued Firebirds, 20-6, the rest of the way. Free State managed only two baskets in the last 14 minutes and turned the ball over 10 times.
"We were all a little tired in the second half," said senior Kelsey Harrison, who scored 10 points in the first half, but was blanked in the second.
Harrison and Lauren Kimball, who also finished with 10 points, were the two players Duncan designated to bring the ball down against Junction City's unending pressure, and they both were visibly weary during the Firebirds' late sinking spell.
"It was tough," Kimball said. "We handled their press in the beginning, but we were out of breath in the late going."
No telling if the outcome would have been different if senior Jenna Brantley, normally the Firebirds' No. 2 ball-handler behind Kimball, were able to play. But Brantley never took off her warm-ups after rolling an ankle in the third quarter of Friday's semifinal victory over Topeka Seaman.
"It wasn't so much Jenna being out," Kimball said. "We came out all right, but their press started to wear on us toward the end of the game."
Duncan wasn't using Brantley's absence as an excuse, either.
"We didn't look at that as a factor," Duncan said. "In fact, I think this will help us in the long run because it gave Maggie Hull some experience handling the ball."
With Brantley out, junior Sarah Craft moved into the vacant starting spot, but Craft isn't a ball-handler, so Duncan gave Hull spot duty at helping bring the ball down the floor.
A large part of Free State's game is forcing its foes into turnovers, but Junction City gave the ball away only twice after intermission. In fact, sisters Alex Hoover and Dani Hoover, daughters of coach Justin Hoover, were just too adept at protecting the ball.
"Those two sisters are really good," Harrison said. "They knew how to take care of the ball."
Alex Hoover, a senior, and Dani Hoover, a junior, are more than pretty good, according to Duncan.
"We knew we couldn't take the ball away from them," Duncan said. "Those two sisters are among the best players in the state, in any class."
Kimball was named most valuable player of the tournament, while Harrison and Brantley made the 10-player all-tournament team.
Next for Free State (3-1) will be a trip to Topeka High on Friday night.