Shawnee — Focus was the word of the night for coach Chuck Law on Tuesday at Shawnee Mission Northwest.
Unfortunately for him and his Free State High boys basketball team, the Firebirds were lacking in that category and fell to the Cougars, 61-56.
Those mental lapses were most evident in the second quarter, when the Firebirds (10-5 overall, 4-2 Sunflower League) were outscored by the Cougars, 17-9.
"Lack of focus, lack of execution," Law said when asked to describe the second quarter struggles. "We weren't mentally into the game at stages tonight and that cost us. You cannot be mentally unfocused against a Ben Meseke-coached team. They don't beat themselves. We beat ourselves with a lack of focus."
Although they trailed by nine at the half, and by 10 after three quarters, the Firebirds did show some focus and some fight as they attempted a fourth-quarter comeback.
Senior Kris Wilson started a 9-2 run to open the final period with a steal and a layup. He missed a lay-in on the next trip down the floor, but junior Jake Miller was there for the tip-in. Following a SMNW time out, and a bucket by the Cougars' Steve Carver, Wilson made a free throw and senior Weston Wiebe drained a short jumper.
With 2:51 remaining, Miller was fouled on a three-point attempt and cut the deficit to three by hitting two of three free throws. However, that was as close as the Firebirds got, and Law appreciated the effort.
"I told them that I was proud of how they didn't quit," Law said. "We could have packed it in when (SMNW) got back up (double digits), but we still found a way to make it semi-interesting until the end of the game."
The Firebirds used full-court pressure the entire game in hopes of taking the Cougars, a renowned half-court team known for steady execution, out of their comfort zone.
"They are a rhythm team, a half-court team," Law said. "We didn't have any choice but to sell out and do that (press)."
While the Firebirds forced turnovers sporadically for the first three quarters, the effect of the constant pressure showed in the fourth quarter when FSHS made its last push.
"At times it was really effective when we had the right personnel on the court, and the energy and the focus was correct," Law said of the press, before lamenting some Firebirds miscues that might have cost the team an impressive comeback win. "We didn't make good decisions when we created a turnover."
Also problematic for FSHS, Wiebe picked up his second foul less than four minutes into the game. He spent the next seven minutes of game action on the bench and finished the first half with two points and a single shot attempt. Law said Wiebe's stellar play this season has made him the focus of Firebirds opponents.
"Teams are going to sell out to Weston every time he touches the ball, and we don't play very well off of him," the coach said. "Obviously that's something we need to work on. We need to get guys moving, cutting to the basket, and we've got to have some shooters spotted up when he gets the ball because that's (the kind of defensive attention) we're going to see the rest of the season."
Wiebe recovered from the slow start and finished with a game-high 18 points, scoring eight in each of the final two periods. He scored six straight in the third by attacking the paint off the dribble.
Wilson (15 points) was the only other Firebird to score in double figures.
Wiebe drained a three with a minute remaining to make it 58-51, and Law called three time outs in the final 60 seconds, seizing the opportunity to teach his players in an end-of-game situation.
"Every game from here on out is going to be this kind of game," he opined.
Firebirds players were not made available for comment following the loss.
FSHS travels to Leavenworth on Friday for a 7:15 tip.