After watching his team only score 16 points in the first half of Friday’s City Showdown against Free State at Allen Fieldhouse, Lawrence High girls basketball coach Jeff Dickson challenged his veteran squad in the locker room to be more aggressive when returning to the court for the third quarter.
The Lions received their coach’s message loud and clear.
Dickson’s squad turned an eight-point halftime deficit into a 11-point advantage in the third quarter, as the Lions rolled to a 63-47 victory over the Firebirds. The Lions outscored the Firebirds, 32-13, in the third quarter.
“Our kids, our seniors regrouped. They light a fire under each other and came out ready to play," Dickson said. "I thought after last year where we had a similar situation that we would maybe avoid that this year, but I was proud of the way our seniors stepped up and our juniors. Hannah Stewart came out with fire in her eyes. She wasn’t about to let us lose that game.”
Senior E’lease Stafford set the tone for the Lions with 12 of her 16 points in the third quarter. The East Tennessee State signee went without a field goal in the first half, but changed that in a hurry after corralling a Chisom Ajekwu block and going coast-to-coast for a layup for the first points of the second half.
“Just getting out of my head and trusting my teammates with moving the ball,” said Stafford of the key factors for her and the Firebirds. “Taking charge, being a leader and setting the tone.”
Stafford and the Lions (4-0, ranked No. 2 in Class 6A) were unable to find much success against the Firebirds’ zone defense in the first half. Dickson had full confidence that Stafford would find a way to get the Lions going, though.
“She wasn’t quite as aggressive as I would have like her to be and she didn’t get her free throws going, but with her it’s just like water on the side of a cracked dam," Dickson said. "Eventually she’s going to break through. That time it took a little bit longer for that to happen, but we all knew it was going to happen. Once it does, you can’t stop her.”
Stafford had plenty of help in the third-quarter barrage by the Lions, particularly down low from the junior post duo of Ajekwu and Sammy Williams. In her first game back from injury, Williams scored all seven of her points in the third. With Lawrence trailing, 33-31, Williams gave the Lions their first lead since 2-0 with a traditional three-point play. The 5-foot-11 junior got the hoop and the harm again on the next possession, but missed the free throw.
Williams and Ajekwu were able to prolong possessions for the Lions with offensive rebounds. Ajekwu ended up with a double-double after logging 17 points and 13 rebounds.
“It was huge. It was the kind of plays we didn’t get in the first half,” Dickson said. “They were beating us all to 50-50 balls. They were getting the offensive rebounds. They were taking it to us, so to see us step up and start winning those and playing with that little extra energy and that little extra step was very gratifying.”
Senior Talima Harjo joined Ajekwu and Stafford in double figures with 13 points, and led the Lions with three 3-pointers.
While the Lions remained undefeated after the City Showdown victory, the Firebirds are still searching for their first win. The Firebirds did not have the look of a winless squad in the first half, though, thanks in large part to the return of sophomore point guard Caely Kesten.
Kesten, who was back in action after being sidelined with a knee injury, scored the Firebirds’ first points by knocking down a 3-pointer. The sophomore floor general then got her teammates involved, as she found freshman Shannon Clarke open in the corner for a triple on the following possession.
“It’s awesome. I love the game of basketball,” Kesten said after making her return. “Just playing it and playing it with the people I love, that’s the best thing you can have.”
Kesten and Clarke scored seven points apiece in the first half to spark the Firebirds to a 24-16 lead going into the break. Along with providing the Firebirds some athleticism on the perimeter, Kesten made it a point to be a vocal presence on the floor.
“Having someone talk to coach and be the communication between the coach and the players — that’s got to be clean. Everyone has to be on the same page. Everyone has to talk. When I came out today, I tried to bring that collectiveness with the talking. That got everyone talking and we just played together.”
Kesten finished with 13 points in her season debut, while Clarke led the Firebirds with 16 points. With the Lions leading 48-37 going into the fourth, Clarke capped a 9-2 Free State run with a traditional 3-point play to pull to the Firebirds within four. Sophomore Haley Hippe started the run with back-to-back buckets.
“Shannon is a freshman and every game she gets better. Haley is only a sophomore with all the things we put on her shoulders,” Free State coach Ted Juneau said. “Her and Shannon having to play inside, it’s tough, but they’re doing well. They’re both going to be good basketball players. They’re both making good improvements.”
Clarke was able to pick up the fourth foul on Ajekwu on the and-one play, but the Lawrence forward didn’t get rattled. Ajekwu scored seven points during a 13-1 LHS run to end the game. Juneau also felt that the youth of his team showed when the Lions pulled away late.
“Sometimes we can’t differentiate between an open shot and a good shot,” Juneau said. "Sometimes we shoot the ball at times when three extra passes might make a real difference.”
Free State (47)
Erin McClorey 0-1 0-0 0, Sam Lawrence 0-3 0-0 0, Caely Kesten 4-11 4-7 13, Shannon Clarke 6-12 3-4 16, Haley Hippe 2-8 1-2 5, Erin Cushing 3-7 1-2 8, Mayela Edwards 2-7 0-2 5, Joy Nunoo 0-0 0-2 0, Evy Harrell 0-0 0-0 0, Lauryn Jones 0-0 0-0 0, Rose Pilakowski 0-0 0-0 0, Hope Wheeler 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 17-49 9-18 47.
Hannah Stewart 2-6 1-2 7, Leslie Ostronic 0-0 0-0 0, Sammy Williams 3-4 1-4 7, Talima Harjo 4-8 1-3 13, Tyrin Cosey 0-4 1-2 1, E’lease Stafford 5-10 5-10 16, Chisom Ajekwu 8-15 1-1 17, Asia Goodwin 0-6 2-6 2. Totals 22-53 12-28 63.
Free State 11 13 13 10 — 47
Lawrence 5 11 32 15 — 63
Three-point goals: Free State 4-20 (Cushing, Edwards, Kesten, Clarke); Lawrence 5-11 (Harjo 3, Stewart, Stafford). Turnovers: Free State 11, Lawrence 12.