The lowest seed remaining in any of the Class 6A boys basketball sub-state brackets, No. 7 seed Free State High — one win away from the program’s first state-tournament berth in six years — could enter today’s 7 p.m. championship game at No. 3 Olathe East embracing the underdog role.
Coach Chuck Law, though, knows that will only get his Firebirds so far.
“You can play up that all the pressure’s on them, and we go in with nothing to lose, and loose and all of those things,” Law said of facing the Hawks (13-8, ranked No. 10 in Class 6A). “About a minute or two into the game, it all comes down to who’s gonna execute, who’s gonna block out, who’s gonna take a charge, who’s gonna dive on the floor for a loose ball, who’s gonna make a big shot.”
The last time FSHS (10-11) played at O-East, on Jan. 4, the Hawks prevailed, 44-40. Free State senior forward Cody Scott and his teammates remember that setback as “one of our worst shooting performances.” The Firebirds connected on just 17 of their 60 shots (28 percent) that night, in the midst of a seven-game losing skid.
“I think the outcome will be different this time,” Scott said, “because we’ve been knocking down shots and playing as a team and come in feeling confident.”
In fact, FSHS has won eight of its last 12 games, while O-East is 4-5 in its last nine. Law said his team has played with some reckless abandon of late. The Firebirds’ feisty side didn’t exist the last time the Sunflower League foes met.
“The first time we went in we were so scared. We played so timid,” Law said. “We missed a lot of easy shots and were down 19-7 at the end of the first quarter.”
The Firebirds out-scored the Hawks the rest of the way, including 26-18 in the second half, when they trailed by 19 at one point. Law said FSHS can’t afford to fall behind again in the rematch.
The Hawks have three double-digit scorers, led by 6-foot-8 junior forward Ezra Talbert (14 points per game), a Creighton University commit. Senior guard Kyle Smith, an Army commit, averages 12 points, as does junior guard Caelan Neal.
Junior forward Khadre Lane leads FSHS with 14 points a game, junior swingman Cole Moreano averages 10 and Scott contributes nine off the bench.
A starting senior forward, Logan Bannister said the Firebirds underperformed during much of the season and are finally living up to their potential lately with wins over Lawrence in the regular-season finale and at Gardner-Edgerton to open sub-state play.
“We didn’t really view it as that much of an upset,” Bannister said of Wednesday’s first-round win at No. 2 seed GEHS. “We felt like we were gonna go in there and get a win, and we think we can beat Olathe East, too.”
FSHS hasn’t advanced to the 6A state tournament since 2007. The Firebirds also went to state in 2000, 2001 and 2005.