Prairie Village — Throughout the years, plenty of teams have chalked up plenty of victories to the old standby known as “the total team effort.”
Friday, during the Free State High boys basketball team’s 63-49 victory against Shawnee Mission East, the Firebirds put their own twist on the claim.
Five minutes into the game, Free State owned a 13-3 advantage, and the Firebirds built their 10-point cushion on the strength of six different scorers and some seriously suffocating defense.
“We hadn’t done that all year,” said Free State junior Evan Manning of his team leaping out to the early lead. “And it just makes the game so much easier and so much more fun to play when you can get up early.”
Although the fast first-quarter lead put the Firebirds up to stay and went a long way toward shaping the outcome of the game, the story in this one wasn’t so much that the Firebirds got up right away as it was that they were able to stay up.
Behind 18 points from Eric Watson, 13 from Manning and eight from Nick Hassig, Free State pushed its lead to as many as 16 points before settling on the final margin of 14. In fact, from the three-minute mark of the second quarter on, SM East never cut Free State’s lead to fewer than 10.
“We’ve really racheted it up in practice lately,” senior Ryan Scott said. “And we just wanted to bring that type of intensity to the game.”
So, too, did Free State coach Chuck Law. Instead of mixing moments of passion with an even-keel approach, Law coached with vigor throughout the game.
“He wanted us to keep the intensity up so he kept the intensity up, too,” Manning said.
If there was one individual highlight for the Firebirds on Friday, it had to be the return to form of their leading scorer Watson, who shot 6-of-8 from the field to lead all scorers. He added four rebounds, three assists, three steals and a block to his total.
“I was in a slump the last couple of games,” Watson said. “And I knew I just had to come out and get out of it. When I got the first couple of shots to go, that helped a lot and allowed me to relax and just play.”
Appropriately, the highlight-reel play of the night for the Firebirds came from Watson. With Free State leading, 33-21, in the third quarter and East feverishly firing up three-pointers to try and get back into the game — East hit just three of 15 triples on the night while FSHS drilled five of 11 — one miss landed in the hands of Manning, who instantly fired the ball up the floor to the streaking Watson. After two dribbles and two steps, Watson rose above the rim and flushed the ball through the net with his right hand.
“That’s what I was hoping he would do,” Manning said. “About time.”
As soon as he hit the clear, Watson never doubted that the slam would be successful.
“I got one in practice the other day that was pretty similar to that one,” he said. “And that gave me the confidence to go ahead and try it.”
Asked if Law would have let him have it had he missed the dunk, Watson didn’t hesitate to answer.
“He would have, but I just try not to think about that.”
Friday’s victory improved Free State to 6-8 on the season. The way Watson saw it, this one came at just the right time.
“This is the third part of the season and it’s time for us to start clicking and making plays,” Watson said.
Free State travels to SM South on Tuesday.