Free State boys knock off Derby, earn third consecutive trip to 6A state tournament
On the bench with four fouls and less than 5 minutes to go, DK Middleton couldn’t handle sitting. He needed to be in the game, he needed to make plays.
“I want to go back in and help my team win,” Middleton recalled telling his coach. “I thought I could play with four fouls.”
Lunging for a loose ball at the other end of the court, Middleton found Mozae Downing to get the ball to Noah Butler on the other end of the court. Butler scored a basket to put the Firebirds up by 3 with under two minutes to go.
Middleton never fouled out, and he commanded the court in all phases of the game to push the Firebirds to 60-55 win over Derby Friday night at FSHS. The Firebirds advanced to the state tournament for the third year in a row, defeating a Derby team that upset No. 2 Topeka earlier this week.
“I think a lot of people doubted this group,” FSHS coach Sam Stroh said. “DK does it all for us. Sometimes he brings it up, sometime he scores inside … He’s one of our captains for a reason and he helped us find a way to win it, that’s what his job is as a captain.”
As much as the Firebirds (15-6) owned the fourth quarter, Derby (7-15) proved that it belonged early on. The Panthers opened the game in a full-court press, which forced seven turnovers on the Firebirds in the first quarter. Free State trailed by 15-11 at the end of the first quarter.
Derby continued to cause problems in the second quarter. With a zone defense, the Firebirds had to attack the rim much more aggressively. Middleton and Alyus Wisdom each picked up three fouls, but also caused Derby’s leading scorer Clayton Hood to pick up three of his own.
Andrew Piper and Wisdom were left unguarded, and scored four key points in the second quarter to keep the Firebirds in reach. The Firebirds opened the second half in a full-court press of their own to go on and tie the Panthers at 40 by the end of the third period, ending the quarter with a 9-0 scoring run.
The last eight minutes ultimately decided which team would go to state.
Free State took over fourth quarter to take the lead on a pair of free throws by Downing, taking advantage of situations from the line when they were given them. Butler and Downing combined for 10 points on the charity stripe.
Derby scored 5 points in a 20-second span to stay within a possession, but Downing boxed out a Panther inside to burn clock on the ensuing inbound and then they ran out of opportunities as time expired.
“I thought Mozae was huge in the second half. He played like a senior instead of a freshman,” Stroh said. “He knocked down free throws, got the and-one, got us in our press break and made a big play at the end of the game.”
Middleton finished the game with 19 points, five steals, and four blocks. He only missed one field goal attempt in the second half, and helped limit a high scoring 3-point team in Derby to just six as a team.
“Coach Stroh changed the culture of this, going to state these last three years,” Middleton said. “(We’re) very excited, the job’s not done yet.”
Free State will face Washburn Rural in the first round of the state tournament, which begins Wednesday.
Nick Bonner 3-5 0-2 7; Ladell Clemons 2-7 4-5 9; Tre Washington 6-11 4-8 17; Clayton Hood 1-4 0-2 2; Amari Thomas 1-7 3-4 5; Jamer Clemons 1-1 0-0 2; Grant Adler 1-3 0-0 2; Earnest Wash 4-7 0-0 11; Devin Arajo-McKendrick 0-1 0-0 0. Totals: 19-46 11-21 55.
Free State (60)
Mozae Downing 1-3 6-10 8; Noah Butler 6-9 8-13 20; DK Middleton 8-11 1-5 19; Ryan Stacey 2-5 0-0 5; Alyus Wisdom 2-7 0-0 4; Andrew Piper 2-3 0-0 4; Turner Corcoran 0-1 0-0 0. Totals: 21-39 15-28 60.
Derby 15 11 14 15 – 55
Free State 11 14 15 20 – 60
3-point goals: Derby : 6-20 (Wash 3, Bonner, L. Clemons, Washington); Free State : 3-10 (Middleton 2, Stacey). Turnovers: Derby 18, Free State 22. Fouled Out: Bonner, L. Clemons.