Free State senior Zach McDermott, who returned to action for the first time in nine days after nursing an ankle injury, stood toward the middle of the court and flashed a wide smile while his teammates huddled around him as he held up the championship plaque.
The players celebrated Free State’s 54-40 win over Wichita North in the Class 6A sub-state championship game Saturday at FSHS that punched the Firebirds’ ticket to the state tournament next week.
The Firebirds led the entire way after beginning the game on a 10-0 run.
“We’re excited,” Free State boys basketball coach Sam Stroh said after the game. “I’m proud of the kids. It’s hard to get to the state tournament, no matter who you’re playing. We’ve had some adversity with some injuries and sicknesses, but we found a way to win.”
One of those Firebirds fighting through adversity is senior Garrett Luinstra, who has battled an illness over the past three weeks. After failing to score in Free State’s 62-31 win over Hutchinson in the sub-state semifinal, Luinstra resembled more of himself against North, scoring a game-high 18 points.
“He looked much better. He was definitely not himself on Wednesday against Hutch,” Stroh said. “We need him to score, and he did a good job tonight finding a way to score, and it wasn’t necessarily from the outside, so it was good to see that.”
Luinstra, who’s known for his sharpshooting, didn’t make a 3-pointer on the night but still shot an efficient 8 of 14 from the floor. He provided 11 first-half points to help the Firebirds to a 26-17 lead at the intermission.
“He’s been continuing to grind this year, he’s been fighting sickness for like the last three weeks. He keeps getting sick every two days,” sophomore Jalan Robinson said with a laugh. “But it was huge for him to come up big and give us (production). He definitely started off well, too.”
The 6-foot-4 Robinson, who finished with 12 points, set the tone early in the paint for the Firebirds. He made two baskets near the rim in Free State’s opening run, and he knocked down two midrange baskets in the third period.
Robinson is hoping this year’s Free State team can make a farther run in the state tournament than it did last year, when the Firebirds lost in the semifinal round.
“It feels good for us to be able to return and hopefully get farther than we did last year,” Robinson said. “We get a second chance.”
Stroh also said he thought Robinson was just as impactful on the defensive end against North.
“Jalan did a good job rebounding, and defending,” Stroh said. “He’s important. He can hit that 15-footer, he can put his back to the basket and score.”
Defensively, the Firebirds forced 16 turnovers and disrupted the flow of the Redskins’ offense.
“That was the key to the game,” Stroh said. “I thought we defended pretty well. I think we followed the scouting report about as well as we could. We didn’t want their shooters to get going. And I thought defensively, transition was pretty good. They got a couple leak outs, but for the most part we were pretty solid down there.”
As for McDermott, who came off the bench and missed his only shot attempt, Stroh is hoping to see him get back to full strength as the state tournament approaches. Stroh was more pleased with how McDermott moved up and down the court after the long layoff.
“He hadn’t played in nine days, so that was pretty good for not playing in nine days,” Stroh said. “We’ll get him off tomorrow and hopefully we’ll see what he looks like in practice this week.”
Free State will now await its seeding in the state tournament, which will begin Wednesday at Koch Arena in Wichita.
Free State (54)
Jared Hicks 0-0 0-0 0, Garrett Luinstra 8-14 2-4 18, Simon McCaffrey 2-7 0-1 5, Bansi King 3-6 0-0 7, Andrew Piper 0-0 0-0 0, Noah Butler 1-5 5-8 7, Zach McDermott 0-1 0-0 0, Dakari Middleton 1-2 3-4 5, Ethan Lincoln 0-0 0-0 0, Turner Corcoran 0-0 0-1 0, Jalan Robinson 5-11 2-2 12. Totals 20-46 12-20 54.
Wichita North (40)
Dayvon Carter 0-1 0-0 0, Caleb Woodson 0-0 0-0 0, Jahaziel Rojas-Cortez 0-0 0-0 0, Daniel Moose 1-4 1-2 3, Peyton Hatter 3-12 1-1 8, Chase McCollum 0-2 0-0 0, Tyjuan Butner 7-15 6-7 20, Antonio Wilson 2-6 0-1 4, Tre’von Wilson 0-0 0-0 0, Zachary Sterner 0-0 0-0 0, Elijah Parmenter 2-2 0-0 4, Ryan Hunter 0-0 1-2 1. Totals 15-42 9-13 40.
Free State 16 10 15 13—54
Wichita North 5 12 11 12—40
3-point goals: Free State 2-12 (McCaffrey, King); Wichita North 1-8 (Hatter). Fouled out: None. Turnovers: Free State 8, Wichita North 16.