Bonner Springs There’s no longer a boulder weighing down the Free State High boys basketball team.
The Firebirds beat Shawnee Heights, 60-47, on Thursday in the opening round of the Metro Prep Classic at Bonner Springs High School. The victory snapped a 20-game losing skid that dated back to last year’s Metro Prep tournament.
“It was 20 in a row from this exact game last year. We won the first game of the tournament and lost the next 20, and here we are winning the first game again this year,” FSHS coach Chuck Law said. “I’ve been saying all along that something the guys need is to win a game early for their sake, for their confidence.
“You could feel the … it wasn’t even a monkey … an 800-pound gorilla lifted off their backs. I was real happy for them.”
Law was even happier because the victory came against a quality opponent, and because his squad played so well overall. Both teams were scrappy and employed full-court presses that mirrored each other.
With the exception of an early six-point lead, the first half was a back-and-fourth affair as both teams were mirror images of each other.
Both teams played full-court trapping presses, and both made it difficult for the opponent to create any open looks.
After trading baskets to a 6-6 tie, FSHS junior Evan Manning buried a 3-pointer from the left wing. Then senior Matthew Ruder scored back to back lay-ins and knocked down a free throw that capped an 8-2 Firebird run.
Free State led, 16-11, at the end of a frantic first quarter, but the advantage didn’t last long. The T-Birds opened the second quarter on a 10-0 run and took their largest lead of the game at 21-16.
Free State used its defense to spark a 13-5 run to end the half. The Firebirds forced six turnovers during that span and scored repeatedly in transition and off cuts through the lane.
FSHS took a 29-26 lead into the locker room, and the Firebirds showed no signs of letting up in the second half. They opened with a 10-2 run that included bookend 3-pointers by Manning and junior Alec Heline. Heights closed to within 39-33 at the end of the quarter, but the lead quickly grew back to double digits and the T-Birds never threatened down the stretch.
Free State forced 15 turnovers and limited Heights to just 12-for-47 shooting.
“That was a good game for us for the first round. Shawnee Heights is a good team, a really scrappy team and really played hard,” Law said. “They really challenged us in an area that we’re trying to make some strides in, and that’s our toughness. That’s a game that last year we probably don’t win, we don’t get to as many of those balls, we don’t finish the game. We were in that situation many times last year and didn’t finish, so that was a really good test for us for our first game.”
David Lammers and Connor Crimmins led Heights with 10 points apiece.
Manning scored a game-high 12 points to pace the Firebirds while Nick Hassig chipped in 9.
Free State (1-0) advances to play Valley Center in the semifinals at 8:15 p.m. today. Valley Center beat Bonner Springs, 85-72, in its first-round game.