It's nighttime basketball from here on out for the Freeman girls.
Playing in the first round of the State B Basketball Tournament at the Huron Arena Thursday afternoon, March 7, the No. 5 Flyers earned an exhilarating 53-46 win over No. 4 Warner to advance to the night session both Friday and Saturday. Freeman will face undefeated, top-seed and Class B's No 1.-ranked team, Ethan, Friday at 6 p.m. for a chance to compete for the Class B title. The loser will play in the third/fourth-place game Saturday night at 6 p.m.
"We placed a lot of emphasis on this," head coach Curtis Sage said after emerging from an excited locker room scene following his team's win over the Monarchs. "The most important game is the first game; it sets the tone for the rest of the tournament. It's a huge relief."
Now the Flyers have the chance for revenge against an Ethan team they went toe-to-toe with in the first half of their regular-season game before falling 30-51. The Rustlers earned a spot in the semifinals after shrugging off a slow start and taking out No. 8 Waverly-South Shore 52-40 in Thursday's first game.
"I feel really good about it," Sage says of another opportunity to play Ethan. "There are 90-plus Class B teams who would like to be in the position we're in. We're one game away from playing for a state championship. That's fun to say."
Sage said Freeman will bring the same game plan to the game that it used to take down Avon in the SoDak 16 and now Warner in the state tournament: suffocating defense and enough offense to win the game.
"We're not going to change anything," he said. "We know they're well-coached and that they have good personnel. We're going to do what we do, and if it's not good enough, it's not good enough and we'll move on to the next game."
Freeman will take a 20-4 record into the contest. Ethan is 23-0.
The worst the Flyers can finish is now fourth, which means this will be the best finish in school history. The Freeman girls were sixth in 2010 and seventh in 2009 — their only other appearances at state.
THE WARNER GAME
Freeman's recipe for beating a dangerous 21-2 Warner team included the same ingredients used in the past — a smothering defense led by the team's quick and athletic guards and just enough offense to win. First and foremost, the Flyers knew they had to make life difficult for the Monarchs' all-state senior center, 6 foot, 1 inch Lauri Rogers (19 points, 10 rebounds per game). Sage said before the game that Freeman would have to hold Warner to 46 points to win and that meant wearing them down with full court pressure and focusing on Rogers in the half court.
"We knew she was 6-1, she has a really strong inside game and can go either way," said Hannah Eberts, a 5-8 forward who is a key defender in the post. "My job was, once she was in there, get in her face, deny her the ball, and we would always have backside help. Coach was like, 'There's no one in the state who can defend her one on one.' She's big and she has all the moves. So, we did that box-and-one and it worked pretty well."
Indeed, Rogers was just 2-for-4 from the field in the first half and Warner had just 11 points through the first 12 minutes of the game and 20 points at halftime.
The second part of Freeman's game plan was to score from the outside. The Flyers knew the Monarchs' height advantage would pose problems inside, where Freeman had ultimately won its SoDak 16 game against Avon to qualify for state. With Rogers and 5-10 seniors Keeley Fischbach and Ashley Fischbach putting the Flyers at a height disadvantage, that meant knocking down shots from the perimeter would be critical.
In that regard, Freeman got off on the right foot, with Eberts connecting on two three-pointers, Dayna Roth hitting another and Josie Fuhrmann draining one from deep at the buzzer to help give the Flyers an 18-8 lead at the first quarter break.
"I was just like, 'I'm just going to shoot it,'" said Fuhrmann, who says she is more worried about leading the team than watching the scoreboard. "As a point guard it's really important that I really take control. I think (the other girls) look to me as a leader; they like when things are going good for me. They build off my energy."
Fuhrmann's three kept momentum on the side of the Flyers going into the second period and they didn't squander it. Eberts connected on a field goal on Freeman's first possession and then dished out a sweet assist to a cutting Isabel Sayler that the reserve put in off the glass to give her team a 22-9 lead.
But, like they would do throughout the game, the Monarchs answered, going on an 8-0 run and outscoring Freeman 11-2 in the final four minutes of the second quarter to cut the Flyers' lead to 24-20. Freeman may have been successful in holding Rogers to just six points in the first two quarters, but the Fischbach twin sisters connected on four three-pointers, which not only kept their team in the game, but also gave Warner momentum going into the second half.
But the Flyers stayed calm.
"We didn't panic; I thought we were very resilient," Sage said. "They made some runs offensively, they got some stops defensively on consecutive possessions, but I thought we really kept our composure."
Freeman came out firing in the third quarter with a big three-pointer from Fuhrmann on its first possession of the half, one of two free throws from Roth and then two more three-pointers from Fuhrmann and Eberts that added up to a 10-0 run to start the second half and put the Flyers out in front 34-20.
It was back and forth after that — a 5-0 run by Warner to cut Freeman's lead to single digits; Freeman junior Emily Miller's first field goal of the game to answer; another three from Fuhrmann; a hoop and a foul that gave Warner an old-fashioned three-point play; and then a strong move and bucket by Freeman sophomore Rijjy Peterson that made it 41-32 at the end of the third period.
But Warner countered thanks to three-pointers from Laura Ochsner and Ashley Fischbach to start the fourth quarter; that coupled with 0-for-5 shooting from the Flyers to open the period put the Monarchs in position to stage a come-from-behind win. But in a key play, with her team trailing 38-41, Ashley Fischbach missed an open three-pointer from the perimeter, Rogers was whistled for an over-the-back on the rebound and Freeman went down and scored thanks to a jumper from Roth that made it 43-38 with 2:02 minutes to play.
The Monarchs drew as close as 49-44 with 1:11 left, but Miller and junior Jaimie Glanzer were 4-for-4 on their free throws in the final minute and the Flyers hung on for a fun 53-46 win.
"We had girls step up when we needed someone to step up, whether it was Hannah early, Emily late, Dayna hit some big shots, Jaimie with those two free throws at the end," Sage said. "The fact that they're not hesitant to take those shots really says something. They're really shining right now."
Eberts finished with 17 points for the Flyers and had four steals. Fuhrmann had 12 points, all on three-pointers and Miller yanked down seven rebounds. The Flyers had 14 team steals and pressured Warner into 18 turnovers. The Monarchs played just five girls all game. Freeman had just five turnovers.
All of it added up to a fun afternoon of basketball for Freeman.
"It's funny; I wasn't even that nervous in the warmup," said Eberts, whose postseason play has helped ignite the Flyers and has them playing their best basketball of the season at just the right time. "I was just excited to play. I think all the pressure is getting here. Once you're here, just play your heart out. And you just have fun. You go as hard as you can.
"It's just awesome because you're playing with the best."