TECUMSEH On the white icing of the chocolate cupcakes were these words in red lettering: “IT STARTS HERE.”
Maybe it did start here for Lawrence High’s defending Class 6A state championship girls basketball team.
Perhaps Friday night’s 49-37 victory over Derby in the consolation semifinals of the Thunderbird Classic was a watershed.
“Winning changes everything,” said Taylor Bird, the only senior on the Lions’ roster. “And I don’t want to lose anymore.”
Those cupcakes were brought to the Shawnee Heights Middle School gym by Bird’s father, who had picked them up at a Lawrence Hy-Vee store.
“Taylor was trying to make a statement,” Lions coach Kristin Mallory said. “At some point, you’ve got to turn it around.”
By now, most people know the Lions have lost their best inside player — Kansas signee Tania Jackson — to season-ending knee surgery and are basically guard-oriented.
Jackson’s absence and a tough early schedule had the defending state champs bogged down at 4-7 prior to Friday night’s meeting with Derby.
Moreover, Derby featured arguably the best high school basketball player in the Sunflower State in Joanna McFarland, a 6-foot-3 center who is headed to Oklahoma.
Yet, as it turned out, McFarland was hardly a factor against a Lawrence zone that repeatedly prevented her teammates from feeding her the ball.
“The rest of the players on their team were our height,” junior guard Haley Parker said, “so we focused on (McFarland). We just tried to front her and not let her catch it.”
McFarland finished with a dozen points, but half of those came in the fourth quarter when the Lions were in complete command.
“That’s the best defense I’ve seen us play since we started the season,” Bird said.
Fronting McFarland wasn’t the extent of the Lions’ pesky zone defense, either. Lawrence also forced 23 turnovers and turned a handful of them into fast breaks.
“Absolutely, that was our best defensive game,” Mallory said. “And it was all the kids together. We had a lot of steals, a lot of hands on the ball.”
That opportunistic defense, coupled with glossy 18-for-22 shooting from the free-throw line, turned the Lions’ dreadful shooting into a wash. Lawrence made only 26.9 percent of its shots (14 of 52).
Bird, the Sunflower League’s leading scorer, led the Lions with 23 points, including a perfect 5-for-5 at the foul stripe.
Parker made only one basket, but nailed seven of nine charities.
A win at noon today over Shawnee Heights in the tourney’s fifth-place game would bring the Lions (5-7) one step closer to .500 with seven regular-season games remaining.
Whether those cupcakes were prophetic remains to be seen, but one thing was certain.
“Those were great cupcakes, by the way,” Mallory said with a smile.