Liberty, Mo. — Playing defense with the game tied in the final seconds Saturday, Free State senior Garrett Luinstra intercepted a pass at midcourt and immediately looked toward the scoreboard.
Luinstra saw the clock flash three seconds. Nobody was in front of him. His coach, Sam Stroh, was pointing at the rim from the sideline. The only thing he had to beat was the clock.
Dribbling in the open court, Luinstra made a game-winning layup at the buzzer to complete a thrilling 75-73, season-opening victory against Liberty in the 810 Varsity Tip-Off Classic at Liberty. It was the easiest basket of the night for Luinstra, who welcomed himself into his senior season with a single-game school-record 36 points.
“It all happened so fast,” said Luinstra, who punched the air in celebration, then was immediately mobbed by his teammates underneath the basket.
One of the top players in the Sunflower League last season, the lanky 6-foot-2 Luinstra drove past defenders for layups, floaters and jumpers. He made 11 of 12 free throws, totaling 21 points in the second half.
The Firebirds (1-0, ranked No. 2 in Class 6A) trailed by seven points with less than 2 1/2 minutes left. They closed on a 10-1 run, forcing turnovers with their full-court press. Senior guard Bansi King, who had 13 points, started the final stretch with a 3-pointer in front of the team’s bench.
Down by two points in the final minute, the Firebirds turned to Luinstra. He missed a running shot, but junior wing Noah Butler was fouled after grabbing an offensive rebound. Butler made two free throws to tie the score, then made another game-tying free throw with seven seconds left.
“We work on that every day in practice,” said Butler, who scored seven points but was in foul trouble for most of the night. “We do game situations where we’re down or tied. We just know what to do and we don’t get frustrated.”
Free State trailed for nearly the entire night, struggling to contain Liberty (1-1, ranked No. 4 in Missouri’s Class 5) senior point guard Jalen Lewis. In a moment before the opening tip, Lewis, signed to play at Washburn University, was congratulated by the public-address announcer for becoming the school’s all-time leading scorer. He proceeded to torment pick-and-roll defenders with 18 points in the first half.
But Luinstra never allowed his team to fall too far behind. The Firebirds were down by 11 points late in the third quarter before Luinstra scored six straight points on back-to-back possessions.
“I told (Luinstra) before the season, I wouldn’t trade him for any other player in the state,” Stroh said. “There may be players that are more talented, more physically gifted, but the way he works and the type of leader that he is … I’ll take him.”
The Firebirds were without senior transfers Reece White-Downing and Zach McDermott, but picked up key minutes from guards Simon McCaffrey and Avant Edwards on the perimeter, along with 13 points and 10 rebounds from senior forward Jalan Robinson.
Free State scored on its final eight possessions, which included Luinstra’s buzzer-beater that looked like a pick-six in football.
"Last year, my first game was kind of rough," Luinstra said. "I was kind of hoping to get some revenge."
Free State (75)
Garrett Luinstra 12-27 11-12 36, Simon McCaffrey 1-6 1-2 4, Bansi King 4-8 2-3 13, Noah Butler 1-7 5-6 7, Jalan Robinson 5-7 3-4 13, Turner Corcoran 0-1 2-2 2, Jared Hicks 0-2 0-0 0, Avant Edwards 0-1 0-0 0, Andrew Piper 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-59 24-29 75.
Jordan McClellan 0-2 0-0 0, Logan Steenstra 3-11 5-5 12, Jalen Lewis 9-17 6-9 25, Brock Maston 4-6 0-0 10, Tavis Turner 1-10 2-4 4, Ian Jacobs 5-5 0-0 11, Grant Subbs 2-4 6-6 11, Grant Houston 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-55 19-24 73.
Free State 17 14 21 23 — 75
Liberty 19 17 19 18 — 73
3-point goals: Free State 5-16 (King 3, Luinstra, McCaffrey); Liberty 6-17 (Maston 2, Steenstra, Lewis, Jacobs, Stubbs). Fouled out: Steenstra. Turnovers: Free State 8, Liberty 13.