There’s probably no coach who enjoys the McPherson Invitational more than Lawrence Free State’s Chuck Law.
He is a big fan of the history of the tournament, and the great teams and great players who have laced it up over the last 50 years. In fact, he made sure to point out to his team the talent that has played here, a virtual Who’s Who of Kansas high school basketball.
The only negative for Law was that his team had never won an Invitational title. The Firebirds did make one final in 2008, but lost at the end to Jackie Carmichael and the Manhattan Indians.
But all that changed Saturday. The Firebirds, considered the underdog going in against Shawnee Mission East, put on a terrific performance as they blazed to a 14-point lead before hanging on for dear life for a 51-45 victory.
That avenged a 52-44 loss to the Lancers earlier in the season.
“I’m so ecstatic for our guys,” Law said. “I told them I would get them some stuff about the guys who have played in the NBA who have come through this tournament. The Wyandotte team, the Heights team, all the great McPherson teams... to be on that list... they are forever etched on that list with those great teams and if you’re going to do it, you might as well do it on the 50th.”
When the Invitational coaches were polled before the event, not one even mentioned the possibility of the Firebirds as the champion. McPherson, Shawnee Mission East, Derby and even Blue Valley West dominated the talk.
But the Firebirds walked the walk, especially Khadre Lane, the gifted 6-4 forward who at times just seemed to float through the air as though he were on a cloud.
The tourney MVP, who was held scoreless in the first meeting between the teams, took over the game with 25 points and six rebounds in displaying a fluid game that he took to a different level.
“Now that he’s made his decision to go to Butler and play football, all of the pressure is off of him to try and be something as a basketball player that he probably never was, but was kind of led to believe he was,” Law said. “And now he’s just attacking the basket and using his athleticism. He had 16 (points) and 13 rebounds last night and 25 and six rebounds tonight. That’s pretty nice back-to-back games for him. That’s what we need him to be.”
Free State had not been pushed the first two nights with comfortable double-digit wins over Buhler and Wichita North.
But Shawnee Mission East was a different animal. However, the Firebirds’ first-half defense was borderline sensational as they mounted a 26-17 lead. East did make a run to get as close as three, but the Firebirds sealed the deal.
“I’m so proud of our guys. We handled the situation with the lead better than we did last night, there’s no question about that,” said Law, whose team on Friday frittered away half of a 20-point lead. “We spread the court better, we moved the ball hotter, we really did what we needed to secure the win. Great effort. That was as close of a 32-minute game as we’ve played all year. Holding that team to 45 points is a pretty good defensive effort.”
Free State turned it over only six times and made 17 of 35 floor shots. The only stat in the Lancers’ favor was rebounding, 28-22.
Shawnee Mission East was led by Lucas Jones with 15 points, and Colin Burns and Joey Wentz added 10 apiece.
Lancer coach Shawn Hair was obviously disappointed by the loss, the second year in a row his team has taken second place.
“We did a poor job tonight,” said Hair, who added that Free State’s inspired play had something to do with that. “We came out flat, got down 33-19, and made a nice comeback. We got it to a one-possession game and we’re supposed to be in a man-to-man defense and we screw up and let Khadre go. We fouled him and they get an ‘and-1.’ He did not score against us the first time we played them. He goes from 0 to 25. He’s a great player, but you can’t give up 25 to him.”
The Lancers will be one of the favorites next year and Hair says that at some point his team will break its drought here, having not won the title since 2007.
“We have a great group of young men and I’m proud of them, but we can’t keep coming down here and get second,” he said.