Ashli Hill was too much of a, yes, hill to climb for Lawrence High.
Hill, a 6-foot-5 senior, dominated the paint and lifted Free State to a 43-40 victory over the Lions in girls hoops Friday night in the LHS gym.
“She’s such a big factor defensively,” Lions coach Nick Wood said of Hill. “She just brings a presence that affected our ability to penetrate.”
Hill posted game highs in three categories — points (14), rebounds (11) and blocked shots (7).
Not surprisingly, she was also a factor down the nail-biting stretch, nailing two free throws with 40 seconds left, then blocking one of the Lions’ last-ditch shots in the waning seconds.
The lead had changed hands four times in the last five minutes when Shelby Miller fouled Hill under the basket with :40 on the clock. Hill reacted emotionally, swinging her arm in an overhead punching motion.
“I was really fired up,” she said of her outburst. “It seemed like the right thing to do.”
Hill certainly picked the right night for what FSHS coach Bryan Duncan called “the best game of her career on both ends of the floor.”
A key was Hill’s ability to stay out of foul trouble, a career-long bugaboo.
“When she stays in the game,” Duncan said, “we tend to be successful. She sat out for maybe 10 seconds, so I kept asking her if she needed a break. I can’t tell you what she said. Let’s just say she said she felt fine.”
Early on, it appeared the Lions would easily avenge their 37-34 loss to the Firebirds last December in the Free State gym. With Haley Parker and Jordyn Tolefree on target, the Lions twice stormed to 10-point leads.
“Give credit to them,” Duncan said. “I think they were energized. They had that look in their eye, and they took it to us.”
But as has been the case most of the season, the Lions lapsed into scoring droughts, Free State caught up early in the third quarter, and the game was tense the rest of the way.
Lawrence High took 16 more shots than Free State, mostly because of hustle rebounds, but made one less field goal. The Lions shot 28.8 percent (15 of 52) and the Firebirds 44.4 percent (16 of 36).
Parker led the Lions with a dozen points — all in the first half — and Tolefree added 11. The two seniors combined for five three-point goals.
“When we make shots from the perimeter, we’re pretty tough,” Wood said. “We kind of live and die with perimeter shots.”
Hill was the only Firebird who scored in double figures, but notably Kennedy Kirkpatrick wound up with eight, including a pair of important three-point goals in the second half.
Kirkpatrick, who attends Southwest Junior High, became the first freshman to play in a crosstown basketball showdown.
“It was really exciting,” Kirkpatrick said. “It was crazy. It was really fun.”
Win or lose, Free State (13-7) was assured a home game in next week’s Class 6A sub-state. The Firebirds will entertain Shawnee Mission South at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
However, Lawrence (8-12) needed a win to secure a home game next week and didn’t get it. The Lions will travel to SM North next Wednesday.
Thus the loss was doubly disappointing for Lawrence, but Parker remained optimistic.
“It’s too bad we lost on Senior Night, especially since it was to Free State,” Parker said, “but we haven’t been that bad on the road this season. We’ve played on the road a lot.”