A first-round loss kept Free State High’s girls basketball players out of Firebird Winter Classic championship for the first time in five years. They were ready to fight for a consolation prize on Saturday morning at FSHS.
The Firebirds earned a 54-39 victory over Hutchinson in the tournament’s fifth-place game despite watching a seven-point halftime lead disappear three minutes into the third quarter.
In the first round, Free State lost its halftime lead against Topeka Seaman and never recovered. This time, FSHS junior Adriana Jadlow answered with an and-one layup. Then freshman Madison Piper drained a three-pointer after the Salthawks turned the ball over on the inbounds pass. That was the start of an 11-3 Firebirds run for the remainder of the quarter.
“Our kids responded real well, got even more aggressive and really took care of the game on the defensive end,” FSHS coach Bryan Duncan said.
The run continued after Piper made one of two free throws, and Jadlow scored on a layup. Hutchinson’s Jenna Higgins came back with a three-pointer, but senior Millie Shade countered with one of her own, giving FSHS a 38-30 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Free State began the fourth quarter on a 7-0 run, with five points from senior Scout Wiebe, who swished a three-pointer and added two free throws.
“It was fun. It was awesome,” Piper said. “We actually played like a team this time.”
Hutchinson (7-6, ranked No. 10 in Class 6A) would never get closer than 11 points once it scored in the fourth quarter, as Wiebe drilled a jumper with 2:18 remaining and sophomore Hannah Walter hit two free throws down the stretch. The Firebirds (6-7) shot 82 percent from the field after Hutchinson erased Free State’s halftime lead.
“(Coach) Duncan was telling us that Hutchinson was a really good team, so it’s really good that we beat them,” said Wiebe, who fell just shy of a double-double with 13 points and nine rebounds. “I think it was the best game that we played this year, so it’s definitely confidence going into our next game.”
The Firebirds trailed by three points after the first quarter, but ended the first half on a 12-2 run. During that stretch, Piper scored six of her game-high 19 points on jump shots, including a mid-range bucket at the buzzer to give Free State a 24-17 lead.
“Madison was excellent,” Duncan said. “She scores for us, but today what I was most excited about was I thought she was an excellent defensive player and an excellent passer — maybe even more importantly, a leader. When she’s doing those things, we’re going to be really good.”
Piper, the physical 5-foot-10 forward who also had six rebounds, added: “It was just fun. I was just having fun out there and that’s when I play my best.”
Although the Firebirds couldn’t win their own tournament for the third straight year, they took plenty of positives out of it.
“It was really fun for us to get a chance to bounce back,” Duncan said. “We lost in the first round; hey, you’ve got to move on and keep playing, and we really competed today. We played today like it was a championship game.”
Free State will return to Sunflower League play Friday, facing Shawnee Mission Northwest at FSHS.