Members of the McPherson High basketball team were in the stands watching Wichita North clank shot after shot Friday night in the semifinals of the 50th annual McPherson Invitational, wondering if it was indeed the same Redskin team that had upset them the night before.
The magic was gone for North, thanks a dragnet defense thrown up by Lawrence Free State, which advanced to the finals with a 67-57 victory.
The 7:30 p.m. championship game Saturday will be a rematch of a Jan. 7 meeting with Shawnee Mission East when the Firebirds came up short in a 52-44 loss. Free State has never won the title, while Shawnee Mission East is seeking its second, with the first coming in 2007.
North, which seemingly couldn’t miss against MHS, struggled to 8 of 26 from the field in the first half, 3 of 13 from 3-point. At the line, the Redskins were 1 of 5 after making 27 of 33 the night before. It all added up to a 34-20 Firebird lead.
"It was a tough spot for them to be in," said Free State coach Chuck Law, whose team has been in the finals just once, that coming in 2008 when it lost to Manhattan. "We thought there might be a chance for them to have a little bit of a letdown because they played so well last night. We thought they might be a little flat after beating the No. 1 seed. They didn't come out and hit the shots early that they hit the night before."
Free State’s Cole Moreano came out on fire, making all five of his floor shots in the first half, three of them treys, for 13 points.
Free State then pushed it to as many as 20, before the teams combined to slop through the fourth quarter with turnovers and fouls.
Moreano finished with 19 points to lead the Firebirds, while Khadre Lane added 16, along with 13 rebounds. The Firebirds were 21 of 28 at the line to just 11 of 23 for the Redskins, which is where the game was won.
North's Tristyn Villa made five 3-pointers for 15 points to share team scoring honors with Sean Bernard. Tarius Williams added 11, going 4 of 16 after scoring 28 points against McPherson. North finished just 19 of 53 from the field.
Law is hoping his team can fare better against Shawnee Mission East Saturday since it now knows what to expect.
"Last time we were a little nervous and a little gun-shy," Law said. "Their size gave us some trouble. That zone really stretched us out and we couldn't make a basket. We were 7 of 32 from 3 that night. (Lucas) Jones is really playing well and they have a very nice basketball team. We'll have to play better than we did tonight to beat them."