Taking a .500 record into Thursday night’s Firebird Winter Classic, the Free State High girls basketball team did not exactly jump off the bracket as a No. 1 seed.
But boy did the Firebirds play like one.
In a game that featured Free State scoring a season-high in points, the top-seeded Firebirds trounced Topeka West, 66-35.
The victory marked the ninth straight opening-round win for the host team and left no doubt about what the Firebirds came to do.
“We want to win it this year,” said junior Chantay Caron of the tournament the Firebirds have yet to win in nine tries.
Their intentions were obvious Thursday night, but it wasn’t just the Free State starters who contributed to the blowout victory.
Susan Wilson and Katie Scrivo scored five points apiece off the bench. Laura Walter added two points and six rebounds. Paige Rothwell was 3-for-4 from the free throw line.
In fact, the only drama of this mismatch involved one of the reserves and came with 25 seconds to play in the fourth quarter. With the Firebirds leading by 29, sophomore Reilly Moore stepped to the free throw line for two shots. The outcome of the game might not have been on the line, but for Moore — the only Firebird that had yet to score — it pretty much felt like it.
“The bench definitely let me know that I was the only one who hadn’t scored,” Moore said. “Before, during and after the shots. It added a little pressure, but I like that.”
No kidding. Moore calmly swished both free throws, setting the final margin and pushing all 10 Firebirds that played into the scoring column.
“We were going to scream at her if she missed,” Caron said. “But that was great. We love watching the other girls play and it was great that they all scored.”
Free State coach Bryan Duncan said the decision to boost his regular rotation from seven players to 10 was a strategic move.
“Regardless of the score, the girls knew that we were going to play everybody early and often,” Duncan said. “In a tournament where you play three games in three days, that helps keep everyone fresh. I also think it helped everyone keep their focus tonight.”
Duncan played nine players in the first quarter alone and the Firebirds took a 15-3 lead into the second quarter. At the half, the Firebirds led 33-12, had shot 50 percent from the floor, were 6-for-7 from the free throw line and outrebounded the Chargers, 14-5.
The biggest reason for all of those numbers was the play of Caron and Ashli Hill. The two junior forwards combined for 20 points and eight rebounds in the first half. They finished the game with 31 points (16 for Hill and 15 for Caron) and 12 rebounds.
“That’s where we wanted to dominate,” Caron said.
And that’s where they did. Topeka West had no answer for Hill inside. She hit her first six shots of the game and saw shot No. 7 narrowly rim out. While Hill started hot, Caron did not. But she got there eventually.
After missing four of her first five shots, the forward-turned-point-guard hit five of her next six to help the Firebirds pull away.
“We ran 2-game a lot, which is kind of like a spread but it has a lot more options,” Caron said. “There’s just a lot more we can do out of that offensively.”
The Firebirds (6-5) showcased just about every aspect of their arsenal Thursday, much to the delight of their head coach.
“We knew this was probably not an even matchup,” Duncan said. “So the goal tonight was to stay focused, early and late, and to play good team basketball. I thought we accomplished both of those goals.”
Doing so put the Firebirds in line to accomplish their biggest goal — winning the tourney.
“It’s a three-step process,” Duncan said. “And we accomplished the first step tonight. The right people did the right things at the right times.”
Step two comes at 8:15 tonight, when Free State takes on Valley Center, a 46-43 winner against Sumner Academy in Round 1. The Firebirds defeated Valley Center, 33-21, in December in the season opener.