Leading by nine points at halftime Tuesday, Free State girls basketball coach Ted Juneau told his team to expect a big push from Olathe West.
It finally arrived at the start of the fourth quarter: nine straight points by the Owls to tie the score. But there was no panic in the Firebirds’ team huddles. They’ve lost several close games this season and were determined not to lose focus.
Despite trailing by four points with 1:52 left, the Firebirds recovered with points on their last six possessions for a 59-56 home victory. The win avenged the Firebirds’ loss to Olathe West during the mid-season tournament last month.
“The team understood what they needed to do and that’s what so gratifying,” Juneau said. “You make a mistake, bad things happen, you talk about it and the next time you don’t make those mistakes and good things happen. That’s kind of what life is all about.”
Freshman forward Shannon Clarke made a game-tying layup on a pass from junior Mayela Edwards, then added go-ahead free throws on the next possession. Clarke and sophomore point guard Caely Kesten made 8 of 10 free throws in the last two minutes, holding off the Owls.
On the final possession, Olathe West couldn’t set up a 3-point attempt when Edwards stole the ball at the top of the key as time expired. Clarke jumped up in celebration as her teammates clapped on their way to greet Edwards at midcourt.
“We’ve had a lot of close games where we’ve just been on the free-throw line and couldn’t make ‘em or couldn’t put it together,” FSHS senior guard Erin Cushing said. “This time, we learned from it. We’re getting better. We’re using our brains now.”
The Firebirds (3-14, 3-7 in Sunflower League) built a 13-point lead in the second quarter with three of their starters on the bench. The 5-foot-6 Cushing, who had eight rebounds, exploded for 10 points in the second quarter with a pair of 3-pointers.
Cushing’s triples sparked a 10-0 Free State run, which included three points from the speedy Edwards.
“I was kind of feeling it in warmups,” Cushing said, “and I was like, ‘All right, I’ll shoot some this game,’ and I just started making them. I just kept getting the opportunities.”
Kesten, who scored a game-high 18 points, kept the Firebirds ahead throughout the third quarter. She drilled a 3 and made a floater in the paint. Consistently drawing extra defensive attention from the Owls (6-11, 1-9), Kesten assisted on a pair of layups by sophomore forward Haley Hippe (10 points).
Juneau said Kesten is “on the cusp” of playing an extremely high level. She drew several fouls on defenders who tried to stop her from driving into the paint.
“Every time out is a learning experience and she wants to learn and that’s what is so good about her,” the coach said.
After so many close losses, the Firebirds were proud of the way they responded when Olathe West took a lead in the fourth quarter.
Players and coaches from both schools wore gold in support of Grit Henderson, the 4-month-old son of Free State teachers Nolan and Laura Henderson who is battling a rare skeletal muscle cancer.
“We went out there,” Cushing said, “and were like, ‘You know this isn’t really for us. This isn’t for our families. This is for the Hendersons and Grit.’ I think that definitely made a big difference that we were able to fight for somebody else and not just ourselves this time.”
Olathe West (56)
Syd Loveless 0-1 0-0 0, Anaiya Uhde 6-12 0-0 14, Michelle Anderson 1-3 2-4 4, Bailey Collar 7-13 1-1 17, Ayiana Uhde 4-8 4-5 12, Mackenzie Hart 0-5 0-0 0, Moriah Goracke 3-5 0-0 6, Allysa Moore 1-2 0-0 2, Macy Glover 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-49 7-10 56.
Free State (59)
Sam Lawrence 1-13 0-0 3, Caely Kesten 6-11 5-5 18, Shannon Clarke 4-8 5-8 13, Haley Hippe 5-10 0-0 10, Erin Cushing 4-5 0-1 10, Mayela Edwards 2-3 1-2 5, Liliana Keathley 0-1 0-0 0, Joy Nunoo 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-51 11-16 59.
O-West 13 12 11 20 — 56
Free State 16 18 11 14 — 59
3-point goals: O-West 5-15 (Collar 3, An. Uhde 2); Free State 4-15 (Cushing 2, Lawrence, Kesten). Fouled out: None. Turnovers: O-West 16, Free State 11.