Free State bench comes up big once again in 60-46 road win over Shawnee Mission East

SM East forward Preston Reynolds (24) and Free State senior forward DK Middleton (10) jump for the opening tip. Free State defeated SM East 60-46 on Friday, Feb. 14.

Prairie Village — Throughout this season, Free State coach Sam Stroh has consistently pointed to the Firebirds’ wins as “team efforts,” as Free State has relied on a productive bench.

And in the Firebirds’ 60-46 road win over Shawnee Mission East on Friday night, that came to be true once again. Junior forward Miles Branch led the Firebirds with 13 points.

“I just came in with the mindset that I was going to get to the basket,” Branch said. “And my point guard, my teammates got me involved early. It’s always good when (you) can come off the bench and bring a spark.”

Whether it was foul trouble — junior forward Andrew Piper and senior forward DK Middleton picked up two quick fouls in the first half — or a change of pace, Stroh opted to rotate through his bench early. Junior guard Kris Daniels, senior forward Tate Fanshier and Branch all played significant minutes, particularly in the first half.

“I thought our bench was huge tonight,” Free State coach Sam Stroh said. “We talked about getting into their bench, and I like they we responded (to adversity), especially when we got into foul trouble. I thought our guys did a good job executing defensively, guarding all their sets.”

SM East (8-7, 5-5 Sunflower League) likes to play fast, so it wasn’t surprising that the Lancers jumped out to a quick 4-0 lead. But Free State (12-4, 7-1 Sunflower League) recovered quickly, eventually taking the lead at 8-7 after a floater from Daniels. Piper also used some nice post moves to get a couple of layups to go, and the Free State defense forced five turnovers in the first quarter.

Daniels grabbed a couple of steals and the Firebirds held an 11-9 lead at the end of the first quarter.

Stroh was happy with how his team responded to early setbacks, especially since the Firebirds weren’t able to practice on Thursday due to inclement weather. Free State held a min-film session after classes on Thursday and a “mental practice” before coming out on Friday.

“I told the guys no excuses and find a way to get the job done on the road,” Stroh said.

Yet after the first quarter, there was still some frustration for Free State. The interior passing of SM East — particularly passes in to forward Will Townsend — continued to create opportunities in the paint. However, the Lancers couldn’t always connect inside, as forward Preston Reynolds missed three layups in the second quarter.

The Lancers stayed with it, though, as Townsend cleaned up rebounding and jumpers started to fall. Guard Tommy Dreyer hit a corner 3, and guard Nick Arensberg also got a 15-foot elbow jumper to go.

But once again, it was the bench of Free State that gave the Firebirds a 24-20 lead at halftime. Branch scored 8 points in the first half, Daniels worked on defense and Fanshier scored two reverse layups.

“We talked at halftime about making some adjustments in our half-court (sets),” Stroh said. “I thought our spacing was a little bit better. I thought our spacing was a bit better on ball screens. We knocked down some shots.”

Free State started out the second half rough, with three early turnovers. This allowed the Lancers to regain the lead off another Arensberg jumper in transition.

But once again, the Firebirds responded with a run of their own. Piper scored on another layup, and Middleton — who didn’t attempt a shot in the second quarter — finally got a shot to fall. Branch also added a steal, and Davis dished to Middleton for another score in transition.

“We weren’t really expecting (to be out in transition), but we just changed our game plan mid-game,” Branch said. “We just got out in transition and the guards pushed the ball.”

Free State took a 42-32 lead at the end of the third quarter, which was appropriately punctuated by Daniels’ missed corner 3 being put back up by senior guard Alyus Wisdom for a layup at the buzzer.

What also helped was the play of sophomore guard Mozae Downing. Downing finished with 10 points and was a reliable ball-handler against the pressure of SM East.

“He’s still only a sophomore and he’s learning every game,” Stroh said. “He gets better at decision-making, time to score, knowing their team’s tendencies, knowing their team’s personnel. We’re excited about his future but he’s also playing really well right now for a sophomore.”

The Lancers didn’t hold back in the fourth quarter, though, as SM East continued to attack the paint. Reynolds cut the lead to 49-42 with a 3-point play and the Lancers switched to a full-court press.

But the Firebirds relied on what got them to the lead in the first place: defense, sharing the ball and bench players stepping up. Davis, Branch, Downing, Middleton, Wisdom and others grabbed steals, took charges and hit free throws.

Stroh was especially happy with how the Firebirds defended out-of-bounds sets, even though Arensberg made some big shots late.

“That was one thing we talked about was taking away some of their sets,” Stroh said. “Their shooters made a couple shots, but it was big for our guys to play defense as one.”

Once the lead got to 12, the Firebirds simply had to hold on for their third straight win.

“I think it’s a big confidence booster,” Branch said. “It’s always good when you can go on the road and get a league win.”

Free State will come back home to play Shawnee Mission North on Tuesday. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m.

Free State (60)

Miles Branch 5-5 3-5 13, Kris Daniels 4-7 2-2 11, Mozae Downing 3-8 4-4 10, DK Middleton 3-8 3-6 9, Andrew Piper 3-5 1-2 7, Tate Fanshier 2-3 0-0 4, Alyus Wisdom 2-2 0-0 4, Olin Yoder 0-1 2-2 2, Dash Hawkins 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 22-40 15-21 60.

Shawnee Mission East (46)

Nick Arensberg 7-13 1-2 16, Preston Reynolds 4-10 3-4 11, Will Townsend 3-8 1-3 7, Tommy Dreyer 3-4 0-0 7, Tony Friends III 1-3 1-1 3, Charlie Sublette 0-0 2-2 2, Emmett Hill 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 18-39 8-12 46.

Free State 11 13 18 18 — 60

Shawnee Mission East 9 11 12 14 — 46

3-point goals: Free State 1-7 (Daniels); Shawnee Mission East 2-8 (Dreyer, Arensberg). Turnovers: Free State 10, Shawnee Mission East 15.

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