Firebirds stay perfect in OT, move on to 6A state semifinals

Free State's Mozae Downing gets control of a ball as a Wichita Heights player falls over him during overtime on Monday, March 8, 2021 at Free State High School.

The potential stress of an overtime Class 6A state tournament quarterfinal didn’t faze Free State High’s boys basketball team Monday night.

This one came on a grander stage, sure, but the Firebirds’ OT experiences throughout the regular season came in handy as they moved past Wichita Heights, winning 41-36 in overtime at FSHS.

Coach Sam Stroh complimented his players’ mettle after the Firebirds improved to 4-0 in OT games on the year.

“In overtime for our guys, I think there wasn’t so much pressure,” Stroh said. “It’s just, ‘Let’s just go win these next four minutes and move on.’

FSHS junior guard Mozae Downing, who scored all five of the Firebirds’ points during the extra period, iced the game — his team’s sixth win in a row — at the foul line, making a pair one-and-one free throws with 1.6 seconds left.

Downing earned the freebies, too, securing a clutch defensive rebound after the Falcons’ A.J. Neal missed a 3-pointer in the final seconds, with Heights behind, 39-36. Downing flew after the rebound, drawing a foul on the floor as a Heights player crashed into him in desperation — a “big-time” play, according to his coach.

Already up two in the final minute of OT, Free State got its 39-36 edge when Downing went 1-for-2 on his second overtime trip to the free-throw line.

Downing scored all five of his points in OT — and all at the foul line, going 5-for-6 — after being held scoreless through four quarters.

“They had basically all five guys in the paint, so it was kind of hard for him to get in there,” Stroh said, before praising Downing for his play-making throughout the win, and, of course, his game-sealing defensive board.

FSHS held Heights (15-8) scoreless in OT. Heights’ first possession of OT took 1:10 and concluded with a missed 3-pointer and a defensive rebound from Andrew Piper.

After Free State’s quick counter didn’t produce any points, the Falcons took their time again, and a Bronxon Frierson 3-pointer rimmed out.

Again, the Firebirds (20-3) took the aggressive route on offense, and it paid off in the form of two free throws for Downing, who knocked down both of his tries after a collision, giving FSHS the first points and lead of OT, 38-36, with 1:14 left in the extra four-minute period.

In a high-pressure situation, the Firebirds’ last possession of the fourth quarter lasted more than a minute. And after a couple of Heights fouls and a batted ball out of bounds with only three seconds showing on the clock, FSHS had one last chance to get out of the first round of the state tournament with a victory in regulation.

The Firebirds’ inbounds play set up Cole Wheeler for a potential game-winning 3-pointer in the left corner, too, but the shot just rimmed out, with it tied up at 36 after 32 minutes.

Heights tied the game at 36 with 1:15 to play in the fourth on a Frierson runner, setting the stage for the dramatic finish.

“We could never get up two possessions,” Stroh said, adding the battle was typical of an 6A state tournament opening-round matchup.

Free State’s Cooper Jackson roars after a bucket against Wichita Heights during the second half on Monday, March 8, 2021 at Free State High School.

The quarterfinal was tied at 32 at the midway juncture of the fourth, before Cooper Jackson (6 points) drove hard to the hoop and exploded for a reverse layup and a 34-32 advantage.

When Heights eventually answered with an Aviel Palmer finish at the rim, Jackson broke the tie again, carving his way through the Falcons’ defense for another basket in the paint, putting FSHS up 36-34.

A 50-50 ball on the floor early in the fourth quarter ended up creating an advantage for FSHS, as players from both teams went after it. Once the Firebirds recovered the loose ball, Jackson quickly moved it inside to a wide-open Piper (team-high 13 points) for a lay-in.

“Piper was huge,” Stroh said. “We needed to get him the ball more in the first half and our guys did a better job getting it to him in the second half.”

Free State’s Andrew Piper gets in for a bucket against Wichita Heights during the second half on Monday, March 8, 2021 at Free State High School.

The next bucket for Piper, a FSHS senior, came much more traditionally, and he finished that one with another scoop off the glass, extending his team’s lead to 30-27.

Next, Piper came through with a highlight reel finish, spinning out of a look in the high post for a smooth basket and a 32-29 lead.

Isaac Gonzales (11 points) got himself to the foul line for two makes and a 26-25 FSHS lead heading into the fourth quarter, when he pump faked in the left corner and attacked a closeout off the bounce to draw a foul with his baseline drive.

Heights’ zone left Gonzales too open on the left wing a few minutes earlier, and Downing made sure FSHS capitalized, slinging a pass to Gonzales for a rhythm 3-pointer that upped the Firebirds’ margin to 24-20.

After a mostly ineffective second quarter offensively, the Firebirds sought out and finished a quality look early in the third quarter to get going, with Dash Hawkins scoring inside over a longer Heights defender, cutting the guests’ narrow lead at the time to 18-17.

Free State took a 20-18 lead a couple possessions later, when Gonzales hit his second of three 3-pointers on the evening.

It was a far cry from the previous quarter, which included just one made basket and two points in the second period for FSHS.

“Our guys just stayed locked in, focused defensively, got us some key rebounds and we were able to escape with a win,” Stroh said.

The Firebirds finally scored their first points of the second quarter with 1:20 to play in the half, as their patience eventually got Piper an opening for a jump hook in the paint, tying the game at 15.

Stroh called a timeout with 3:38 left in the first half when Heights cut Free State’s 7-point lead down to one, at 13-12, with the Firebirds in an offensive lull and misfiring on 3-pointers against the Falcons’ zone.

Free State closed out the first quarter in style, with Jackson beating Heights’ trap up top in the final seconds of the period. Jackson spun out of harm’s way and drove in to sink a floater that extended his team’s lead to 13-6.

The limited fans who were able to attend the unique state tournament home game erupted for the first time in the first quarter, when the Firebirds’ lead grew to 11-6 on a left corner 3-pointer from Gonzales.

FSHS took its first lead of the night, 8-6, at the midway point of the first quarter, when Kris Daniels grabbed an offensive rebound and attacked to draw a foul and hit a pair of free throws.

That came on the heels of Daniels’ steal and sprint ahead for a layup to tie the game at 6, as Heights started playing more methodically in the half court, and the Firebirds’ defense made it more difficult to find easy paths to the hoop.

The Falcons opened up the road playoff game making sure to get the ball deep into the paint for high-percentage shots inside, taking an early 6-4 lead, but Free State matched the visitors’ approach on the opening few possessions, with Piper scoring in the paint.

The win set up for FSHS a berth in the 6A state semifinals on Thursday, when the Firebirds will take on Haysville-Campus at Koch Arena, in Wichita.

“We’ve got to figure out how to score some more points,” Stroh said of the upcoming matchup. “We’re going to wear our masks and roll the ball out and get after it for 32 minutes.”

Free State 41, Wichita Heights 36 (OT)

Wichita Heights (36)

Bronxon Frierson 3 0-0 6, A.J. Neal 1 0-0 3, Tyren Miller 0 0-0 0, Dreylin Kemp 3 0-0 6, T.J. Williams 3 0-0 7, Aviel Palmer 6 1-4 14.

Free State (41)

Kris Daniels 1 2-2 4, Mozae Downing 0 5-6 5, Dash Cleveland 1 0-0 2, Jailen Thompson 0 0-0 0, Cole Wheeler 0 0-0 0, Andrew Piper 6 1-2 13, Cooper Jackson 3 0-0 6, Isaac Gonzales 3 2-2 11.

WHHS 6 12 7 11 0 — 36

FSHS 13 2 11 10 5 — 41

Three-point goals: WHHS 3 (Neal, Williams, Palmer); FSHS 3 (Gonzales 3). Fouled out: None.

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