STILWELL Size alone rarely wins basketball games. Nor does a roster full of seniors. But, as the Free State High boys basketball team found out Tuesday night, a combination of the two can be deadly.
In its first game since winter break, Free State watched helplessly as an eight-point third-quarter lead evaporated as fast as it came in a 53-45 loss to bigger, more experienced Blue Valley West.
Free State led 32-24 midway through the third, but went scoreless for more than six minutes and trailed, 38-33, with 5:19 to play.
Facing one of their first deficits since the first quarter, the Firebirds clawed back to tie it three times, but never could get back in front. Down the stretch it was simply too much Brandon Ubel, Jacob French and BVW experience.
Ubel, the Jaguars’ 6-foot-9 center, scored seven of the Jags’ final 11 points, including two free throws that pushed the lead to 47-42 with 1:48 to play after a hard foul from Free State’s Connor Monarez.
As the Jags pulled away from the free-throw line, the Firebirds gave it away with turnovers. At one point during the final three minutes of the fourth quarter, Free State committed four turnovers in a span of six possessions.
But it was Blue Valley West’s 14-1 third-quarter run that changed the tone of the game — and not the late-game turnovers — that left the Firebirds lamenting another missed opportunity.
“We let the game get away from us earlier,” FSHS coach Chuck Law said. “We had them on the ropes and had an opportunity to put the game away, and we let them off the mat.”
A big reason for the change in momentum was the increased intensity of the Blue Valley West defense. While the Firebirds lobbed the ball around the perimeter 30 feet from the basket, the Jaguars contested every pass and hawked every dribble.
“They pressure hard, and we don’t have much of an answer for hard pressure on the ball right now,” Law said. “They guard hard, and they exploited our shortcomings.”
Ubel finished with 19 points and eight rebounds. French, a 6-foot-5 senior, added 13 points and six boards. Free State, once again, struggled to find a go-to guy.
“We have a lot of guys waiting for someone else to make plays,” Law said.
One guy who found a way to make things happen was Monarez. He hit two three-pointers — the second of which tied the game at 38 — and added five rebounds and four assists.
“I’m really trying to embrace a different role,” said Monarez, known primarily as a spot-up shooter last season. “As a senior, I’m trying to make sure that people feel like wanting to win is more important than scoring or getting your name in the paper.
“We’re experiencing some growing pains, but we just need to relax and try to have some fun when we play.”
Jake Miller led the Firebirds with 14 points. Nick Hassig added nine.
The Firebirds (1-5) will travel Friday to Olathe North.