Overland Park Nothing seemed to be going right for the Free State High boys basketball team Friday night. That is, until Christian Ballard picked off a pass at halfcourt.
The senior center - all 6-feet-4 and 275 pounds of him - intercepted the pass by Shawnee Mission South's Will Spradling in stride. No one was ahead of him. Ballard took a few dribbles and elevated toward the net - so high he emphatically dunked the basketball with two hands right before the clock expired in the second quarter.
Free State fed off Ballard's leadership and athleticism, defeating Shawnee Mission South, 43-34, in the Raiders' gym.
The dunk sent the Firebirds bench into a frenzy. Ballard left the floor at halftime visibly pumped up. Teammates encouragingly pushed Ballard, whose face was so intense it rivaled the likes of former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher.
"Once I was down to two steps, I thought, 'Yep. I'm going to dunk it,'" Ballard said. "We just started coming back and I got fired up. I said, 'We just need to blow them out.'"
Free State did just that, outscoring SM South, 29-14, in the second half.
The Firebirds trailed by six at halftime. Free State coach Chuck Law wasn't impressed, to say the least.
"That was the worst half of basketball we played all year," Law said. "We were pathetic in the first half."
It was as if the entire team woke up, though, after Ballard's big play.
"That just got us pumped up," junior guard Kris Wilson said. "We came in the locker room and everyone was hyped. It just carried on to the second half."
The Firebirds immediately opened the second half with a full-court press on defense. Players swarmed to the ball with a new level of energy and forced SM South (4-10) into several turnovers.
Free State (7-6) hustled more on offense, too. The Firebirds took their first lead of the game off a Wilson layup with 20 seconds left in the third quarter. Wilson crashed the boards and grabbed an offensive rebound to generate the bucket.
Ballard was the intriguing story, though, on offense. In previous games, Wilson and junior forward Weston Wiebe were the typical first and second options on offense. Friday night, there was no questioning Ballard's desire for the ball. He essentially demanded the ball in the post.
Ballard shed visible evidence as well. Sweat dripped down the back of his uniform like he just finished running a marathon.
"He wanted the ball because he knew they couldn't guard him," Law said. "A lot of times he doesn't want the ball. A lot of times he doesn't work hard enough to get the ball. That sweat that's on his uniform - which is always there - I thought he earned it tonight."
Wilson led the team with 14 points. Ballard scored 12.
"He was without question the best player on the court tonight," Law said of Ballard. "That was as proud of Christian as I've been in the last few years since I've been coaching."
Free State will play host to Shawnee Mission East, ranked No. 2 in the Kansas Basketball Coaches Assn. Class 6A poll, today at 5:30 p.m.
Free State girls 45, Shawnee Mission South 37
During warmups, Jenna Brantley gave Free State fans a preview for what would transpire on the basketball court. The senior guard swished five threes in a row before the game. None of the five remotely came close to hitting the rim.
Come game time, she took advantage of the SM South zone defense, hitting three three-pointers and scoring a game-high 16 points.
"We just rotated the ball a lot," Brantley said of playing against the half-court zone. "Before, we were looking to shoot on the first time around. Now, we're reversing the ball three our four times to get an open shot."
Free State (9-5) controlled the game with a 7-0 run to open the second half. The play that completed the run saw senior guard Lauren Kimball call a play from the top of the key.
SM South coach Ron Millard shouted to his players that Kimball would post up. Upon receiving the ball in the post, Kimball passed out of the double team to a wide open Brantley, who drilled a three and forced SM South (9-5) to call timeout.
"Lately, we haven't been playing well the first three minutes of the second half, and we all know that's a crucial part of every game," Free State coach Bryan Duncan said. "Tonight, we came out and played really good man-to-man defense in the first two minutes, and I think that made the difference."