FSHS boys respond from early deficit to advance past Junction City in postseason opener

photo by: Chance Parker

Free State junior Mozae Downing shoots the ball against Junction City. Free State won 53-42 Tuesday, March 2, 2021.

Some teams aren’t picky about what their postseason wins look like. But Free State’s boys basketball team isn’t one of them.

The message in the locker room after the Firebirds’ 53-42 home win over Junction City on Tuesday was clear: When FSHS welcomes Washburn Rural for the substate championship on Friday, it can’t afford to play like it just did.

“The good thing is we survived and moved on,” FSHS coach Sam Stroh said. “We need to get better in the next 72 hours.”

Free State was rusty, especially in comparison to its opponent. It had been 11 days since the Firebirds (18-3) last took the floor, while the Blue Jays (9-12) were coming off a win in the play-in game just a few days earlier.

And the difference was obvious at the start of the game. Junction City immediately took control, and it held a 14-5 advantage at the 2:42 mark. The Firebirds committed six early turnovers, as well.

When the Free State coaching staff called an early timeout to help the players catch their breath, everyone knew the team had to get dialed in quickly.

“It was our wake-up call,” said junior Dash Cleveland, who paced the Firebirds with 17 points. “I was just talking to them and I was like, ‘We got to start going. If not, this is not going to go our way.'”

The Firebirds responded in a big way after that. Senior Kris Daniels drilled a 3-pointer out of the timeout on an assist from junior Cooper Jackson. Senior Andrew Piper netted two free throws in the final minute of the opening period, shrinking the gap to 14-10.

“Our response to the timeout was maybe the difference in the game,” Stroh said. “But we’ve got a ways to go after that performance.”

Free State maintained its momentum in the second quarter, which began with Cleveland burying a 3-pointer. Sophomore Jailen Thompson then nailed a baseline jumper on an assist from Daniels, giving Free State its first lead of the night, 15-14, at the six-minute mark.

Junction City called a timeout, but FSHS never trailed from that moment on.

photo by: Chance Parker

Tuesday’s game against Junction City was the first game the student section was allowed to attend. Free State won at home 53-42 Tuesday, March 2, 2021.

After the Blue Jays’ timeout, Thompson threw down a transition dunk off his own steal. Jackson also recorded a fast-break layup off his own steal after that.

Free State’s defense greatly improved in the second quarter. After surrendering six made baskets in the first quarter, the Firebirds held Junction City to 2-of-7 in the second. After their timeout in the first quarter, the Firebirds didn’t give up a basket until the 5:07 mark in the second period.

“After the timeout, we got a couple turnovers,” junior Mozae Downing said. “Our defense really helps our offense a lot. That’s what really started it.”

Daniels connected on a 3-pointer from the corner — thanks to a perfect pass from Jackson — to end the second quarter with a 22-18 lead.

In the third quarter, Piper scored 5 points. But Junction City stayed within striking distance until the fourth quarter, when Cleveland helped put the game away.

Cleveland was responsible for 14 of Free State’s 19 points in the final period. He scored 12 points on his own, which included 5-for-6 shooting at the free throw line. Cleveland also recorded an assist on an impressive back-cut by Jackson for Free State’s first bucket in the fourth quarter.

“I just got comfortable, really,” Cleveland said. “I was just like, ‘I got to put my all on the line, because I don’t want to go home sad.'”

Still, the Firebirds know that going home is a possibility if they can’t get in gear later this week. Washburn Rural, which Free State will face at 7 p.m. Friday in the substate championship game, beat Manhattan High 51-33 on Tuesday.

“We have to get better,” Stroh said. “I’ve seen our guys respond well after games that we haven’t played our best. And that definitely was tonight.”

photo by: Chance Parker

Free State sophomore Jailen Thompson shoots the ball against Junction City. Free State won 53-42 Tuesday, March 2, 2021.

Junction City (42)

Chris Dixon 7-18 2-2 18, Terrance Tedder 1-6 0-0 2, Austin Smith 2-3 0-0 4, Seth Clark 1-5 0-0 2, Howard Johnson 4-13 2-3 12, Javon George 0-1 0-0 0, Deontae Baker 1-3 0-0 3, Xavion Felton 0-0 1-2 1. Totals: 16-49 FG 5-7 FT 42 points.

Free State (53)

Mozae Downing 1-3 5-7 8, Dash Cleveland 5-7 5-6 17, Jailen Thompson 3-5 2-2 8, Andrew Piper 2-6 3-4 7, Cooper Jackson 3-10 1-3 7, Kris Daniels 2-3 0-0 6, Cole Wheeler 0-1 0-0 0, Isaac Gonzales 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 16-35 FG 16-22 FT 53 points.

Junction City 14 4 8 16 — 42

Free State 10 12 12 19 — 53

3-point goals: JC 5-22 (Dixon 2, Johnson 2, Baker); FSHS 5-11 (Downing, Cleveland 2, Daniels 2). Turnovers: JC 12; FSHS 13. Fouled out: Seth Clark, JC.

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