The Lawrence High and Free State boys' and girls' basketball teams met tonight in the City Showdown.
The talk all week was about the Lawrence High guards and Free State post players, but one aspect of the matchup seemed to go overlooked.
Her name was Tania Jackson.
Despite missing most of Wednesday's practice due to a sore left ankle - and nearly missing the game altogether - the LHS forward started and was effective all night in leading the Lions to a 44-30 victory over the Firebirds (2-2) Thursday night at LHS.
The 6-foot-2 junior scored eight points on 3-of-5 shooting, added eight rebounds and chipped in three assists. Her play was the most consistent aspect of the Lions' victory.
"We couldn't have done it without her," sophomore guard Cassie Potter said. "She was the key to this game. She was outstanding."
Behind a hot start by junior guard Taylor Bird, the Lions (5-0) jumped to an early 13-7 lead at the end of the first quarter and appeared to be off and running.
But Free State found the game more to its liking in the second quarter, controlling the pace and holding the Lions to just two points while closing the gap to one - 15-14 - by halftime.
"I think the first half went as scripted for us," Free State coach Bryan Duncan said. "We controlled the tempo and played with poise and were in the game. We lost our composure for about a three-minute stretch in the third quarter, and I think that was the difference in the game."
That run came in the final minutes of the third. After a bucket by sophomore Ashli Hill kept Free State within a point at 23-22, the Lions unleashed a 9-0 run to end the quarter and took a 10-point lead into the fourth. After missing all 10 three-pointers it attempted in the first half, LHS hit 3-of-7 from downtown in the third quarter, including one by Potter as the buzzer sounded.
"That was huge," said Taylor Bird, who found Potter for the buzzer-beater. "That kind of took all the weight off of us."
An 8-2 LHS run to open the fourth put the game out of reach and the Lions cruised to the 14-point victory.
The win not only preserved the Lions perfect record heading into winter break but also broke a five-game losing streak to Free State.
"The streak's over," Jackson said.
Ending it wasn't easy.
For the better part of three quarters, the Firebirds made the high-flying Lions play their game. LHS coach Kristin Mallory said the slow tempo frustrated her girls at times, but added that she never felt that her team lost control of the contest.
"Early on we played like we wanted to," Mallory said. "And then we just got stagnant. Defensively, we didn't put the kind of pressure on them that we wanted to. But even after a difficult first half, we went into the locker room leading by a point."
In the second half, the Lions turned up their defense and that forced Free State into mistakes. In all, the Firebirds coughed up 21 turnovers, compared with just 10 for the Lions.
Appropriately, Jackson was the catalyst for the Lions' third-quarter run. Less than two minutes after Potter knocked down the Lions' first three-pointer of the night, Jackson responded with a triple from the corner. The bucket, along with Jackson's emotional outpouring, inspired the Lions to add to their lead.
"Tania played well," Mallory said. "She rebounded well, and she was tough. She brought a lot of positive energy to the team tonight."
The play that best symbolized Jackson's impact came late in the first half. With LHS leading by two, Haley Parker misfired from the outside and the ball was heading out of bounds, the Lions' confidence and momentum bouncing with it. Jackson sprinted from the free-throw line to the baseline and chucked the ball back into play, where it contacted a Firebird and richocheted out of bounds.
"Tonight was all about defense and intensity," Jackson said. "Our defense wasn't that good in the first half but we stepped it up in the second half."
Taylor Bird led the Lions with 10 points. Jackson and Danielle Bird added 8 a piece and Potter and senior Lindsey Murray each had six.
Sophomore Chantay Caron led the Firebirds with 10. Sarah Craft and Taylor Manning each had six.
Although the outcome was a disappointment for Duncan, the night was, in many ways, positive for both sides.
"We executed the way we wanted to, it just wasn't enough," Duncan said. "The reality is we're still learning about who we are and I thought we learned a lot tonight."
So, too, did the Lions, who discovered that a 5-0 start is a wonderful way to enter the winter break.
"We'll get the good Christmas now," Taylor Bird said.
Points, rebounds by Lawrence High's Tania Jackson
Consecutive points scored by the LHS girls to end the third quarter
Turnovers committed by the Free State girls
Turnovers committed by the Lawrence High girls