Rallies don’t exist in vacuums. They aren’t things that just magically appear.
They come from somewhere else, somewhere a little deeper.
This was what the East boys told themselves, trailing Olathe East 44-39 with 6:13 left in Friday’s 6A semifinal at Koch Arena.
“We knew we had something left to give,” East senior guard Zach Jackson said. “No Xs and Os, we just needed to play harder. Once we did that, we knew they were going to lay down … we knew we had them.”
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East’s rally proved to be the tipping point in a 59-52 win over Olathe East to set up a rematch with Lawrence in Saturday’s state title game. The Aces defeated Lawrence 83-62 in the championship game of the Topeka Highland Park Invitational on Jan. 24.
East hasn’t won a state title since 2005.
“This has been a group of guys, all year, that rally around each other,” East coach Joe Jackson said. “We preach team, we preach that different guys will have to step up at different times during the year, and you saw that tonight with Isaac Fralin and Sam Eckels playing a really high level of basketball.”
East (23-1) needed every bit of its roster to hold on against Olathe East.
Leading 16-11 after the first quarter thanks to a pair of three-pointers each from Zach Jackson and Samajae Jones, Zach Jackson and Kelly had to sit for most of the second quarter with two fouls each. East’s reserves, playing around starters Jones and Fralin, managed to hold onto the lead and went into halftime with a 26-22 lead.
Fralin, minus Kelly in the frontcourt, kept the Aces afloat in the post with six of his eight points in the first half.
“This wasn’t just another game,” Fralin said. “This group of guys lost in the state semifinals last year and we haven’t been to the championship yet. When the rally started, it seemed like every play just kept getting bigger and bigger. Every basket seemed like its own rally.”
The biggest player on the court for most of the night — literally and figuratively — was 6-foot-8 Olathe East junior Josiah Talbert, who scored 16 points and grabbed eight rebounds, with 13 points in the second half. His back-to-back three-pointers in the third quarter put Olathe East (18-6) up 30-29, and another basket by Talbert put East in a 44-39 hole.
“It’s really emotional, really heartbreaking,” Talbert said. “We’re mostly juniors, but our senior, Jovian Blake, is somebody that means a lot ot us. We feel like we let him down.”
East tied the score in one sequence — Kelly made a basket and was fouled, and an offensive rebound off the missed free throw was kicked back out to Zach Jackson for a three-pointer and a 44-44 tie.
After Olathe East took a 46-44 lead on the next possession, Zach Jackson threaded the needle through Olathe East’s defense to Kelly for a two-handed dunk over Talbert to tie the score. Two free throws by Zach Jackson gave East the lead and, after Eckels drew a charge at the other end, the Aces never trailed again.
“Great pass by Zach,” Kelly said. “I was pretty hyped up when I caught it and just went up with a lot of energy.”
Zach Jackson led East with 22 points. Samajae Jones added 20, including seven points in the final five minutes.
“What a perfect time to deliver, in that arena and in that atmosphere,” Joe Jackson said. “These guys battle together, they fight. What a phenomenal effort.”