Northwest boys snap losing streak, fall in follow up
Behind the strength of three near "double-doubles" last Tuesday, the Shawnee Mission Northwest boys basketball team put an end to its five-game losing streak, dispatching Lawrence Free State, 61-44, three nights before falling to Shawnee Mission East, 45-35.
Junior forward Jonas Varnum (13 pts., 7 rebs.) led a front line trio that included senior forward Darrell Stallings (8 pts., 7 rebs., 3 steals, 2 assists) and junior Matt Page (8 pts., 8 rebs., 3 assists.) that combined for 29 points and 22 rebounds in dominating Free State in the paint. Their efforts, combined with leading scorer Dusty Burdolski's 15 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 assists helped the Cougars end a slide that started in January and threatened to overshadow the Cougars' season-opening 10-game win streak.
"We got off to such a huge start," said Northwest head coach Ben Meseke outside the Cougar locker room following the game. "We hadn't been doing that. The kids just wanted it. They've been through both sides now. They weren't playing passive."
Indeed, the Cougars' aggressiveness was key to the fast start of which Meseke spoke.
Down 2-0 early on, the Cougars embarked on a 24-2 run over the next quarter and a half to break the backs of the Firebirds. The run was started by Burdolski, who canned a left corner three off an assist from sophomore guard Chase Mejia to give the Cougars a 3-2 lead. It was a lead they never relinquished. Minutes later, senior guard Brandon Cox nailed a pair of three pointers -- the first on a dish from Burdolski and the second on an inside-out assist from Page -- to put the Cougars up 12-3. By the time junior forward Adam Marello nailed a turnaround jumper at the first-quarter buzzer, the Cougars led 14-3.
Like the first quarter, the second began with a Burdolski three from the left side off another Mejia assist. When Page drained a jumper from a Burdolski pass, the Cougars had their biggest lead of the first half, 24-4. Though the Firebirds made a brief charge just before halftime, the Cougars still headed into the locker room with a commanding 30-15 lead.
The second half began with both sides trading buckets until just past the halfway mark of the third quarter. That's when Free State senior guard Scott Heitshusen went on a 5-0 run of his own, first stealing the ball in the Cougars' backcourt and going in for the layup, and then draining a left corner three off an assist from teammate Brian Murphy. The run cut the Cougars' lead to 10, 40-30.
However, that was as close as the Firebirds came the rest of the night. On the ensuing trip down court Varnum nailed an unassisted three-pointer from the right side, putting the Cougars back up by 13.
Varnum extended the Cougars' lead with the first bucket of the fourth quarter, a turn-around jumper off an assist from Page that made the score 46-32. Page increased that lead to 16 moments later on a tip-in, and a pair of Burdolski free throws made the score 50-32. From there, the Cougars never looked back, finally winning 61-44.
After the game, Meseke confessed to trying something a little bit different with his team in preparation for the Firebirds.
"Trying to break the funk we've been in isn't easy," Meseke said. "We'd been in such a huge drought shooting the ball that, Saturday morning, after we watched some tape, we got out on the court and we sang the Chiefs' song (The Tomahawk Chop) and did a rain dance. We wanted it to start raining buckets, and it did."
Unfortunately for the Cougars, the storm waters dried up three nights later when Northwest traveled to Shawnee Mission East to face the Lancers, a team the Cougars had beaten in overtime earlier in the season.
The first half saw neither team giving quarter to the other with six lead changes and three ties. Varnum staked the Cougars to an early 7-4 lead when he was fouled on an offensive rebound and putback and converted the traditional three-point play. In fact, Varnum scored the Cougars' first seven points, showing no sign of intimidation in squaring off with East's heralded senior post, J.D. Christie. Though East would take an 8-7 lead, the Cougars answered with four straight points of their own on two Stallings' break-away layups.
In the second quarter, East jumped out to a 16-13 lead before Northwest answered again with a 5-0 run that featured a Varnum bucket on a power spin move in the paint. A pair of Christie free throws just before halftime tied the score at 18-18, where it stayed until the buzzer sounded.
The buzz at halftime was not so much about who had scored as it was about who hadn't. Burdolski, the Cougars' scoring leader was scoreless through two periods and Christie, the vaunted Lancers' point man had only two points.
However, both team leaders answered the bell in the third quarter. Christie got things started by scoring the first four points of the quarter for the Lancers. He was answered by Burdolski who sank the first three-pointer for his team in the third frame. After the Lancers built a six-point lead towards the end of the period, it was Burdolski who again answered, draining a left corner three from a Mejia assist to cut the Lancer lead to 33-30 at the end of the quarter.
In the fourth quarter, Burdolski again brought the Cougars back to within three, 35-32 on a backdoor assist from Stallings. However, East coach Shawn Hair slowed the game down to a crawl, having his point guard dribble the ball just on the East side of half court for more than two minutes without resistance, while Meseke instructed his defense to remain in its zone formation. Finally, with less that four minutes remaining, East ran its offense -- scoring a layup on a backdoor cut to make the score 37-32. From that point on, the Lancer defense put the clamps on the Cougar offense, allowing few good looks at the basket and no second chances. Christie drilled five out of six free throws down the stretch while the Cougars managed to shoot a mere 3-for-10 at the line during the same stretch.
Varnum led the way for the Cougars with 9 points and 8 rebounds while Burdolski finished with 8 points, 4 assists, and 3 boards. The loss dropped the Cougars to 11-6 on the year.
After a long meeting with his team following the game, Meseke reflected on East's defense and on what his team needed to do to get better.
"I want my team in a position to win the ballgame at the end," Meseke said. "You've got two teams that play pretty good defense. They really got out and suffocated things. They took away our wing pass again and again and again."
Now, the Cougars have to try to figure out a way to get better against SM South on Friday night. The Raiders, led by another Sunflower League standout -- senior Ryan Jehle -- have already beaten the Cougars twice this season -- both times by three points.
"They've beaten us in two games, by three points each time," Meseke said. "This week we're going to have to find four points somewhere."