Emporia It's no secret Free State High senior Jenna Brantley will do just about anything to get a laugh.
On Thursday night, she admitted she was the one who needed the giggles.
Standing at the foul line with 69 seconds remaining in overtime, her team trailing by a point, Brantley willed in her first free throw - the ball agonizingly flirting with the rim on its eventual journey to the bottom of the net - before turning to face backcourt mate Lauren Kimball, who stood at center court.
At which point Brantley offered up a look that required some explanation following the Firebirds' 56-53 victory against Washburn Rural in the opening round of the Class 6A state tournament at White Auditorium.
"My stomach dropped. I got really scared, and I was really nervous," said Brantley, offering a rare candid peek into what an athlete really is thinking when an entire season hangs in the balance. "I just looked at her. I had to have her make me laugh a little bit to get rid of the jitters."
In Brantley's case, laughter most certainly was the best medicine. She sank the second free throw in the same fashion as the first - another healthy scrape of the rim was involved - accounting for her game-high 19th point and the final lead change in a topsy-turvy contest in which Free State secured the first state playoff victory in the program's 10-year history.
While the triumph provided a significant reversal of fortune for the entire Free State team following last season's opening-round tournament loss to Wichita South, it likely delivered a more personal impact for Brantley than any other player fortunate enough to make both trips to Emporia.
Battling a case of bronchitis - not to mention the nerves of a player making her state-tournament debut - the 5-foot-10 shooting guard saw her reliable sweet jump shot disappear in last year's 56-39 loss, finishing with just six points.
She blitzed that benchmark with the majority of the second quarter still remaining Thursday, not just knocking down her beloved three-point jumper, but showing an extra gear on a handful of drives to the hoop that resulted in one three-point play and two more successful trips to the free-throw line.
Just for good measure, she also zipped a perfect 20-foot pass to teammate Sarah Craft on a backdoor cut with two seconds remaining before halftime, culminating in the bucket that gave the Firebirds a 35-24 lead at the break.
Brantley's first-half stat line: 15 points, two steals, one assist, no turnovers and surging big-game confidence.
"The first half, I really got to do the offense," Brantley said. "No one was really creating. I just tried to create."
Which can be a tiresome job. Noticeably winded at times in the second half, Brantley scored Free State's first bucket of the third quarter, then went silent the next 19 minutes - even taking a breather or two on the Free State bench down the stretch.
Until the time finally came, after a combined three fourth-quarter and overtime lead changes, for the Firebirds to have the last laugh.
"That was probably the most comfortable I was in the second half and in overtime, when the ball was stopped and those two (Brantley and Kimball, who closed out the scoring with two freebies with nine seconds remaining) were going to the free-throw line," Duncan said.
"They made it happen."