Second half surge pushes Free State to 66-38 win over LHS in City Showdown

Free State's Shannon Clarke chases after a ball with Lawrence High's Amaya Marshall during the first half on Friday, Feb. 21, 2020 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Holding a 7-point lead at halftime over their crosstown rival, the Firebirds needed a spark in the second half to close the deal.

“We thought our press was being effective and we just needed to get to the rim more,” Free State coach Nick Wood said. “We were settling for too many outside shots. And once we tried to get to the rim and got out in transition, we did a really good job.”

And the Firebirds responded with a trio of 3-pointers from junior forward Daeci Jaillite-Walker, senior guard Joy Nunoo and junior guard Evy Harrell. Add a pair of layups from junior forward Shannon Clarke and the Firebirds snatched the momentum swing they were looking for.

“During the first half we had kind of made some runs and got up about 9, 10 points,” Wood said. “But every time we did that, they would come back and hit a big shot and get back in the game. So at halftime, we said, ‘Once we get up by about 10, we need to continue to push even harder.'”

The Firebirds (7-11, 2-8 Sunflower League) eventually stretched their lead out to as many as 28 points, and that second-half surge was enough for Free State to roll to a 66-38 victory over LHS in the City Showdown. Jaillite-Walker led the Firebirds with 13 points.

This is Free State’s first win since a narrow 53-52 victory over Derby in the Lady Firebirds Winter Classic on Jan. 31.

It was also a bit of a homecoming for Wood, who graduated from LHS in 1996 and coached the Lions from 2009-14.

“That school is a special place,” Wood said. “It holds a special place in my heart and it’s like competing against a family member. But when the game’s going, you’re out there competing and you’re trying to win the basketball game.

“But when it’s over, it’s back to family.”

It was the Lions, though, that landed the first blow. LHS (5-13, 1-9 Sunflower League) jumped out to an early 6-2 lead after freshman guard Hailey Ramirez hit a 15-footer and senior guard Ella Stewart hit an open 3-pointer.

The Firebirds were ready for this start, as they discussed before the game to not let “emotions get too big” early.

“Our girls did a great job of keeping their composure,” Wood said. “I’m so proud of them for that.”

But Free State quickly woke up, as the Firebirds went on a 10-0 run to take the lead. Senior guard Caely Kesten led the way with 6 points and Free State took a 12-9 lead at the end of the first quarter.

The Lions cut the lead to 14-12, but the Firebirds retaliated with a 3 from junior guard Robin Todd and an and-one from Clarke.

This started another run from Free State, with the Firebirds leading 27-19 with just a couple of minutes to play in the first half.

LHS coach Jeff Dickson said his team once again got off to a good start, but had some jitters coming in. Dickson even likened Free State’s press to the 1993 Arkansas Razorbacks, which prevented the Lions from getting the ball inside.

“We got a little hesitant with their press, which was really more of a token ‘slow you down’ kind of press,” Dickson said. “We weren’t as aggressive as I would have liked to have been, and that took us out of a lot of things we wanted to do.”

But then Clarke picked up her second foul, and the Lions got another opportunity to gain some momentum going into halftime. Stewart hit another 3, but the Firebirds held on to a 29-22 lead at the half.

Free State brought plenty of pressure throughout the half — especially in the backcourt — as the Firebirds forced 14 LHS turnovers in the first half.

And while LHS junior forward Ozi Ajekwu got an early layup to go, Jaillite-Walker and Nunoo responded with 3-pointers. Jaillite-Walker also hit a pair of free throws and the Firebirds were suddenly up 37-24.

Free State did cool off — and Kesten picked up her third foul with less than a minute to go — and allowed LHS freshman forward Geme Ajekwu to score a couple of layups late. But the Firebirds outscored LHS 16-8 in the third quarter, and still held a comfortable 45-30 lead.

Ozi Ajekwu and senior forward Paiden Bell scored layups for LHS to start the fourth quarter, but Free State was still firmly in control. The Firebirds stretched the lead out to 53-35 midway through the quarter with baskets from Clarke and Harrell. Todd and Clarke also each added a pair of free throws.

The Firebirds had four players score in double figures, with Todd, Clarke and Harrell all scoring 11 points behind Jaillitte-Walker’s 13.

“That’s what makes us so good,” Wood said. “When we’re at our best, it’s everybody, it’s not just a few players that help us win basketball games. It’s when we have threats all over the floor, and those girls have it in them.”

Wood said he’s hoping this win will give the Firebirds a chance to get back to winning ways from earlier this season.

“That’s the message after the game,” Wood said. “We still have a lot to play for and lots of opportunities to be successful. And when we play like that, we’re going to be tough to beat.”

For LHS, Dickson said he hopes this will be a valuable learning experience moving forward.

“We just didn’t get it done tonight, but I don’t think we’re going to come out of this with our heads down low,” Dickson said. “Free State and Coach Wood did an amazing job and played a little better than we did tonight.”

Free State will next face Shawnee Mission West on Tuesday, while LHS will play Shawnee Mission South. Both games will tip off at 5:30 p.m.

Free State (66)

Daeci Jaillite-Walker 3-6 6-6 13, Shannon Clarke 4-13 3-4 11, Evy Harrell 4-10 2-7 11, Robin Todd 3-6 3-4 11, Caely Kesten 3-6 0-0 6, Joy Nunoo 1-3 3-4 6, Nysha McVay 2-2 0-0 4, Anna McIntire 1-2 0-0 2, Raven Gueary 1-1 0-0 2, Thayu Kimori 0-1 0-0 0, Macky Moore 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 22-56 17-25 66.

Lawrence High (38)

Ozi Ajekwu 6-11 0-5 12, Ella Stewart 2-8 2-6 8, Amaya Marshall 1-7 1-3 4, Paiden Bell 2-5 0-2 4, Geme Ajekwu 2-2 0-0 4, Layla Harjo 1-6 1-3 3, Hailey Ramirez 1-4 0-0 2, Serenity Keo 0-3 1-2 1, Lexi Dutcher 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 15-48 5-21 38.

Free State 12 17 16 21 — 66

Lawrence High 9 13 8 8 — 38

3-point goals: Free State 5-23 (Todd, Nunoo, Jaillite-Walker, Harrell); Lawrence High 3-17 (Stewart, Marshall). Turnovers: Free State 11, Lawrence High 18.


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