Free State leans on zone defense to capture substate title with 44-31 win over Washburn Rural

photo by: Chance Parker

Free State junior Mozae Downing and sophomore Jailen Thompson block a shot by Washburn Rural. Free State won 44-31 to claim the Class 6A substate championship title Friday, March 5, 2021.

With a state berth on the line, Free State head coach Sam Stroh decided to do something that he’s never done before in his eight-year coaching career: He had his team play zone defense all four quarters.

Other than a few inbound plays, the Firebirds utilized a 2-3 zone defense on every possession of their 44-31 win over Washburn Rural Friday night at FSHS. It allowed Free State (19-3) to secure a fifth consecutive substate title and advance to the Class 6A state tournament for the fifth year in a row.

“It was the difference in the game,” Stroh said. “I thought the guys did a great job on thescouting report. We wanted to take away their 3-point shooters. They were locked in defensively. They did a great job.”

The Junior Blues (13-7), who had won four in a row entering Friday, finished with a season-low 31 points in the substate championship game. They shot 12-for-42 from the floor, including four of 17 from long range. Two of Washburn Rural’s biggest threats, Joseph Berry and Jack Hutchinson, were held to 11 points apiece.

“I don’t think they scored more than four or five possessions in their zone offense,” Stroh said. “That’s a credit to our guys; they were flying around. We talked about communicating, finding Hutchinson.”

“We worked on (the zone defense) yesterday in practice and it was working pretty well,” junior Mozae Downing said. “This is actually the first time coach Stroh has went 2-3 the full game. I feel like we executed it well.”

photo by: Chance Parker

Free State clinched the Class 6A substate championship title with a 44-31 victory over Washburn Rural Friday, March 5, 2021.

The zone defense wasn’t something completely new for the Firebirds. They had been using it for portions of most contests since November, thanks to a suggestion from assistant Brandon Cameron.

Prior to Cameron’s suggestion, Stroh estimated he had played zone approximately 10 total possessions during his previous seven seasons as a head coach. Free State mostly had been using it in the second half since November, as was the case in its win over Junction City on Tuesday.

But the Firebirds wanted a stronger start than their last game, so they began with that defensive look against the Junior Blues.

“Our starts, we were always trailing and always playing man to start,” Stroh said. “I thought we’d see if we can flip the script on that.”

Prior to tipoff, the coaching staff decided that if the Firebirds ever got down 6 or 7 points, then they’d resort back to their man defense.

It never came to that.

Free State led wire-to-wire after sophomore Jailen Thompson scored the first points of the night on an assist by junior Dash Cleveland at the 7:30 mark in the first quarter. Washburn Rural was held to just two baskets in the first quarter, and FSHS grabbed a 6-4 advantage out the gate.

The Junior Blues didn’t fare much better in the second quarter, either. They were held to 10 points in the first half while going 4-for-22 from the floor.

That type of defensive performance took a total team effort by Free State, beginning with the starting rotation of Downing, Cleveland, Thompson, senior Andrew Piper and junior Cooper Jackson.

“Leading a team to 10 in the first half, that’s great basketball,” Cleveland said. “We are just a good defensive team. I just knew we were quick enough to get to the spots.”

The Junior Blues battled their way back into the game in the second half, but the Firebirds never wavered. When Washburn Rural made things interesting, Free State normally responded with a strong defensive play and a timely basket.

Thompson delivered an and-one at the 5:59 mark in the third period after the visitors pulled within 2 points. He later swatted a corner 3-point attempt from Berry, which led to a floater by Jackson on the other end.

Jackson came through with a crucial steal midway through the final period, when he poked the ball from behind while Berry was driving. Downing then delivered a basket on the other end to give FSHS a double-digit advantage.

Washburn Rural answered by getting back within 4 points with 3:15 left to play, but Free State took complete control after that.

Senior Kris Daniels started off a 9-0 run for the Firebirds by netting two free throws. Piper tallied a basket shortly after that, thanks to a nice find by senior Cole Wheeler. Wheeler then gave Free State another double-digit lead with a bucket of his own on an assist by Downing.

The Firebirds’ cushion allowed senior Justin Hicks and junior Jet Dineen to play alongside Daniels, Cleveland and Thompson during the final 35 seconds. Hicks, who tore his meniscus over a week ago, dribbled the ball out to end the game.

“It was awesome,” Hicks said. “I didn’t know if I was going to get in, because I’m obviously hurt. But it was awesome to finish the game.”

Free State will host Wichita Heights (15-7) in the Class 6A quarterfinals on Monday. Tipoff is set for 6 p.m.

Washburn Rural (31)

Jack Bachelor 2-6 0-0 5, Joshua Williams 0-2 0-0 0, Joseph Berry 4-11 3-4 11, Jack Hutchinson 4-8 0-0 11, Brady Patterson 0-1 0-0 0, Davan Brady 1-5 0-0 2, Brock Howard 0-2 0-0 0, Quincey Kidd 1-7 0-0 2. Totals: 12-42 FG 3-4 FT 31 points.

Free State (44)

Mozae Downing 2-2 4-4 8, Dash Cleveland 1-3 0-0 2, Jailen Thompson 3-8 1-1 7, Andrew Piper 4-7 3-4 11, Cooper Jackson 2-5 0-0 4, Cole Wheeler 3-5 0-0 7, Isaac Gonzales 1-3 0-0 3, Kris Daniels 0-4 2-2 2. Totals: 16-36 FG 10-11 FT 44 points.

Washburn 4 6 12 9 — 31

Free State 6 11 9 18 — 48

3-point goals: WR 4–17 (Bachelor, Hutchinson 3); FS 2-11 (Wheeler, Gonzales). Turnovers: WR 7; FS 10. Fouled out: None.


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