Oh, so close: Firebirds’ late rally falls short in state title game

Free State seniors Reece White-Downing (10), left, and Garrett Luinstra (3) show their disappointment after a 51-40 loss in the Firebirds’ 6A state championship game against Blue Valley Northwest Saturday, March 10, 2018 at Charles Koch Arena in Wichita.

WICHITA — All Free State’s boys basketball players wanted was a chance.

Watching film of Blue Valley Northwest on Saturday morning before the start of the Class 6A state championship game, the Firebirds noticed the Huskies never had to play competitive fourth quarters.

The Firebirds gave the state’s top-ranked team all it could handle. They nearly rallied from a 13-point deficit in the second half, trailing by just two points in the final minute. They just couldn’t find a way to tie the score in a 51-40 loss at Wichita State’s Koch Arena.

In the final 35 seconds, the Huskies (21-4) made eight straight free throws to eliminate Free State’s strong comeback bid. On Northwest’s final trip to the free-throw line, the realization of coming so close to a state title started to set in for the Firebirds and a few players wiped tears out of their eyes at midcourt.

“Our goal was to get here and to win this,” Free State senior Garrett Luinstra said. “This one hurts a lot. We wanted this one bad.”

The Firebirds, playing in the program’s first state title game, opened the fourth quarter with a 9-3 run. Senior sharpshooter Bansi King scored five of those points, including a corner 3-pointer on a pass from senior point guard Zach McDermott to cut the score to 41-37.

After the Huskies went 1 of 4 at the free-throw line, Free State junior Noah Butler scored through contact for a layup-and-the-foul. The crowd was loud and Luinstra thought they had their opponent rattled.

On the following defensive possession, Free State senior Reece White-Downing (six points) drew his second charge of the fourth quarter. White-Downing, the team’s glue guy, clapped on his way down the floor and waved his arms in the air to urge the school’s student section to yell louder.

“We played probably the best game of our season, but we just couldn’t pull it out,” said Luinstra, who carried the offense in the second and third quarters on his way to a team-high 16 points.

Down two points after White-Downing’s charge, the Firebirds considered holding the ball for the final shot. With 1:29 remaining, McDermott drove past a defender and had a path to make a layup, but it was waved off by a timeout from the Free State bench. Coach Sam Stroh thought McDermott was nearing a five-second violation before he started driving toward the lane.

Out of the timeout, the Firebirds turned the ball over — they only committed five turnovers — when a dribble bounced off the foot of a BVNW defender. Down three on the next possession, McDermott fired a 3-pointer in front of his team’s bench, but it bounced off of the rim and into the arms of BVNW senior Joseph Pleasant. The 6-foot-6 Pleasant (19 points, three blocks) made four straight free throws to ruin any chances of a comeback in the final minute.

“It still hurts too much to think about it,” White-Downing said. “We were just so close.”

Throughout the last month of the season, the Firebirds nearly climbed over every obstacle in their path. They dealt with their share of injuries and illness. Senior forward Jalan Robinson (four points, two rebounds) played 14 minutes on an ankle he injured in Friday’s semifinal, which required a trip to the hospital.

“That was one of the best things I’ve ever seen,” Stroh said. “I mean, his ankle was the size of a softball this morning.”

The Huskies (21-4), winners of their second straight championship, went unbeaten against Kansas teams and defeated all of them by double digits. With three starters above 6-foot-5, the Firebirds wanted to slow the game down.

Before Robinson entered, Free State used White-Downing, Butler, DK Middleton and Turner Corcoran to defend the paint. In the opening minutes, the Firebirds held the ball to force BVNW out of its zone defense.

“We wanted to dirty it up and make them come guard us,” Stroh said. “At the same time, we were going to guard them. That was our plan and we stuck to it and it was executed perfectly.”

In the state semifinals last year, the Firebirds lost by 27 points to the Huskies, and they wanted to prove to everyone that they could stick with them.

They did that and nearly shocked the state, ending the season with a 19-6 record and their highest placing in the state tournament in school history.

“They set a legacy that’s hopefully going to continue to build,” Stroh said.

Free State (40)

Garrett Luinstra 5-13 4-4 16, Simon McCaffrey 0-3 0-0 0, Reece White-Downing 3-4 0-0 6, Noah Butler 1-2 1-1 3, Zach McDermott 1-8 0-0 3, Bansi King 3-5 0-0 8, DK Middleton 0-0 0-0 0, Turner Corcoran 0-0 0-0 0, Jalan Robinson 2-6 0-0 4, Jared Hicks 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 15-41 5-5 40.

Blue Valley Northwest (51)

Christian Braun 3-8 0-0 8, Max Johnson 2-3 0-2 4, Samuel Ward 3-5 4-4 11, Parker Braun 2-4 3-4 7, Joseph Pleasant 6-10 7-8 19, Jack Chapman 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 17-31 14-18 51.

Free State 5 9 14 12–40

Northwest 13 9 16 13–51

3-point goals: Free State 5-16 (Luinstra 2, King 2, McDermott); Northwest 3-7 (C. Braun 2, Ward). Fouled out: Butler, McDermott. Turnovers: Free State 5, Northwest 10.