Olathe — A handful of Olathe North girls basketball players left their home gym Friday night physically feeling the brunt of their loss to Free State.
For four quarters, the Firebirds bopped, bruised and bullied their way through the Eagles in a 38-33 victory that gave FSHS its first Sunflower League victory of the season.
That it came through physical dominance simply was a bonus.
“At all positions, our size is our strength,” Free State coach Bryan Duncan said. “And it’s important for us to let other teams know that we’re going to be more physical than they are.”
Never was that more evident than late in Friday’s game, when Free State’s Laura Walter — who, coincidentally, was sporting a sweet shiner on her left eye from a recent practice — wrestled O-North’s Haley Downing to the ground for a jump ball with 1:18 to play and Free State protecting a 36-33 lead. Both players fell to the ground, and Downing smacked her head on the hardwood for the literal and figurative knockout blow.
With 53 seconds to play, Olathe North had just two team fouls. In order to put the Firebirds on the line in hopes of extending the game, the Eagles were forced to foul five consecutive times. During that stretch, Free State not only took care of the basketball, but also carved 28 precious seconds off the game clock.
“We had the ball in Chantay’s hands for most of that time,” Duncan said. “And that’s exactly what we wanted. She’s strong, she’s confident, and she can knock down free throws. I thought she did an excellent job there, and, really, all night.”
Caron led the Firebirds with 14 points on 5-for-9 shooting from the floor and a 4-for-4 performance from the free throw line. But it was her final two points of the night — a pair of free throws with 25 seconds remaining — that were the sweetest for her.
“Actually, for the first time ever, I wasn’t nervous (at the free throw line) because I was so mad that they kept grabbing my jersey,” Caron said.
Flaunting a calm exterior at the line, Caron knocked down the two free throws and the Firebirds held on the rest of the way.
Free State trailed 11-9 after one quarter of play and was down, 19-17, at halftime. In the third quarter, however, the Firebirds found their groove.
Junior Ashli Hill scored eight of her 12 points in the third, and, after trailing by as many as six points in the quarter, the Firebirds took a 32-31 lead into the fourth quarter.
During the third, the Firebirds pounded the ball down low to Hill but did so from a spread formation, creating space for her and her teammates to operate.
“When we did that, it just felt like there was more room for all of us,” said Caron, whose three-point play with 1:20 to play in the quarter gave FSHS a 32-29 lead.
With the victory, Free State improved to 3-3 overall and 1-0 in Sunflower League play.