Placing an atypical starting five on the floor didn’t stop Free State High’s girls basketball team from thumping Highland Park, 79-22, Thursday afternoon in the first round of the Firebird Winter Classic.
Usually substitutes for the Firebirds, junior Millie Shade and senior Summer Frantz joined Scout Wiebe and twins Abbey and Chelsea Casady on the first unit and helped FSHS dictate the game’s pace from start to finish.
“The players who kind of have been role players for us,” Free State coach Bryan Duncan said, “really stepped up.”
Frantz knocked down the first of nine Free State three-pointers in the romp and Shade converted her first six shots of the game without a miss. Duncan said their performances — Shade scored 15 points and Frantz finished with eight points and three rebounds — were a result of their practices leading up to the tournament opener.
“The kids that we started today were very focused, regardless of the opponent,” Duncan said.
Free State (7-3) built a 27-7 lead on the Scots (2-9) in the first quarter, behind 12 points from Shade and six from Chelsea.
Said Shade: “We came out as a team focused and determined to win. We didn’t want to lose in the first round.”
The outcome never was a question, thanks in large part to the fill-in starters, who replaced injured guards Kennedy Kirkpatrick and A’Liyah Rogers. Though Rogers didn’t play (Duncan expects her back today for the semifinals), Kirkpatrick came off the bench in her first game since partially tearing her left MCL on Jan. 11. The senior guard hadn’t even gone through a full-blown practice and had to decide after pre-game warm-ups whether she would play.
“I decided I might as well test it out a little bit and gradually increase it the rest of the weekend,” Kirkpatrick said.
It didn’t take her long to find her groove. After forcing a couple of passes and missing her first three-pointer late in the first quarter, Kirkpatrick drilled a three and scored five points in the last two minutes. Her eight second-quarter points propelled FSHS to a 47-10 halftime lead.
After scoring 15 points off the bench, she pointed to the team’s great ball movement and efficiency (the Firebirds hit 30 of their 54 shots) after Free State set a new program record for points in a game, edging a 78-point effort against Lawrence last season.
“Really, everyone was lights out tonight,” Kirkpatrick said.
The Firebirds could have won without Kirkpatrick, because of Shade’s play, a 13-point night from Chelsea, seven points from Ariana Frantz off the bench and six points apiece from Wiebe and backup Lily Ross.
“It feels good,” Shade said, “to know we don’t need our star player for everything.”
Kirkpatrick just felt excited to be playing basketball again. She said Free State showed patience on offense and recognized the match-ups it needed to exploit.
“We did everything we’ve been talking about doing for the rest of the season,” she said, “and we should just get stronger as it goes.”
FSHS plays host to Topeka West at approximately 6:30 tonight in the tournament semifinals.