Standing in the tunnel of Charles Koch Arena after Friday night’s semifinal against Derby, senior guard Max Johnson let everyone know where his priorities were.
“I don’t care if I score,” Johnson said. “All I care about is getting that ring.”
Although Johnson averaged the least points per game of any starter on this year’s Blue Valley Northwest squad, it would turn out that he would play a huge role in their state final matchup with No. 2 Lawrence Free State.
On their first offensive possession of the game, the underdog Firebirds decided to pass the ball around the perimeter. After a minute of Johnson ball-chasing at the top of the zone, head coach Ed Fritz rose out of his seat and called for the Huskies to switch out of their vaunted zone defense and instead guard the Firebirds man-to-man, something they had seldom done to this point in the season.
“I just didn’t want a state championship game played by people stalling,” Fritz said. “I don’t think it’s right, and I don’t think it helps. They did what they had to do to win, and I respect them for it, but we’re here to play.”
Despite being put in an unfamiliar position, the Huskies defense was able to continue their season-long success in the first quarter. Whether it was Free State junior forward Noah Butler dribbling the ball off his knee out of bounds, or Firebirds senior guard Zach McDermott shooting the ball over the back of the backboard, the Huskies defense swallowed up the offense of their opponent.
Senior guard Sam Ward said the team saw the Firebirds offensive strategy as a nod to their defensive capabilities.
“We just kind of took it as they were scared of our zone,” Ward said. “We kind of took it as more of a respect than anything and we just came up to the challenge.”
At the end of the first quarter, the Huskies held a 13-5 lead, and the Firebirds were shooting 28.6% from the floor.
In the second half, Ward tipped a Firebirds inbounds pass into the hands of junior guard Christian Braun. Braun picked the ball off the floor maneuvered around a defender and found Ward for a layup with 3:18 remaining in the third quarter. Ward’s layup marked the Huskies largest lead of the game, as the Huskies lead 36-23.
After Ward’s layup it seemed as if a switch was flipped for the Firebirds, and with Christian Braun seated on the Huskies bench with four fouls, the Huskies were in need of a lift.
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