Back-to-back: No. 1 Huskies repeat as state champs with 51-40 win over No. 2 Firebirds

The varsity boys basketball team won their second consecutive state championship with a 51-40 win over No. 2 Lawrence Free State Saturday March 10 at Charles Koch Arena. Senior forward Joe Pleasant had 19 points and 5 rebounds in the win.

Ryan Blank

Gabe Swartz, Editor-in-chief

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.

For a brief moment Ward was able to provide a bit of relief as he went behind-the-back into a step-back 3 which gave the Huskies a 41-32 lead with 5:26 remaining in the game.

“The difference was just coach Fritz calmed us down,” Ward said. “He said that everything was going to be okay, and so I think really it was just our coaching and us handling it well.”

A 3-pointer by Free State senior guard Bansi King, plus an and-one by Noah Butler cut the Northwest lead to 42-40 with 3:02 to play. Just as they did in the 2017 title game, the Huskies season would come down to free throw shooting.

Put in the same position as his brother A.J. was in last year’s title game, senior forward Joe Pleasant stepped up to the line and made five free throws in a row during the final minute, extending the BVNW lead to 47-40.

“Joe’s always been a good free throw shooter for us,” Christian said. “I knew Joe was going to make them and we’d be fine. I panicked for a little bit when [the lead] got to 3 or whatever it got to (editor’s note: the lead was cut to 2 with 3:02 to play), but I knew Joe would make ‘em.”

“I was thinking here’s the moment I’m not going to shy away from it and I want to knock them down,” Pleasant said.

In the final few offensive possessions for the Firebirds, Johnson was able to keep the ball out of Free State senior guard Garrett Luinstra’s hands, forcing McDermott to throw up two deep 3s which failed to fall, and the Huskies pulled out a 51-40 win over Free State. The win clinched Northwest’s second-straight Kansas Class 6A state championship, and the fourth in school history.

Despite not getting the final shots, Luinstra said he thought the Firebirds played as well as possible against the No. 1 seed.

“I felt like we did everything we could… and we couldn’t pull it out,” Luinstra said.

The Huskies win in the state championship game marked their 17th straight victory to end the year, their last loss coming on Jan. 13 against Grandview High. BVNW finishes the 2017-18 season with a 21-4 record.

“You know Christian has had a lot of pressure,” Fritz said of the play of his 6-foot-5 junior point guard, “but when Christian has been our point guard we’ve won 17 games in a row.”

Fritz said the win was a nice cap on a near decade of dominance in 6A.

“We’ve got a nice program,” Fritz said. “To be in the state championship game seven out of the last nine years is probably a pretty good feat, and so we want to keep it going.”

Pleasant finished the tournament averaging 20.3 points per game, and leaves Northwest as a two-time state champion.

“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Pleasant said. “I couldn’t think of any better way to end off my senior year.”