LINCOLN — While Grace Barry would rather be dribbling, the Lincoln East point guard was more than happy to shoot — and make — a few free throws Thursday to help the Spartans earn their first state tournament berth in seven seasons.
Defending Class A state champion Omaha Westside trimmed East's 45-29 lead to 47-41 in a 2:35 stretch midway through the fourth quarter.
That's when Barry, Caroline Spethman and Allison Roh combined to make eight free throws in the final 1:18, giving East a 55-42 victory in the District A-7 finals.
"Honestly, I just like to dribble the ball around," Barry said. "A couple of us were out here last night after practice for quite a while just shooting free throws, and I think that might have helped."
Barry made the first four of those final eight free throws, and both of her trips to the line were in 1-and-1 situations. That helped East increase its lead to 51-42.
Those free throws made sure the strong second quarter East used to build a 10-point halftime lead didn't go for naught. Instead, the Spartans (20-5) are headed back to the Class A state tournament for the first time since 2009.
Westside (19-5) clinched the wild-card berth to the tournament that runs March 3 through 5 at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
East coach Dennis Prichard said he wasn't surprised Barry, who led the Spartans with 20 points, was the spark plug who helped secure the victory.
"She's been doing that all year," Prichard said. "She improved over the summer and worked a ton on her ball handling. We haven't been a real good free-throw shooting team, but she's the type of kid you want to have in those situations."
Westside jumped to a 10-4 lead in the first four minutes. Sophomore guard Quinn Weidemann, who led the Warriors with 20 points, had a pair of short jumpers in the lane, followed by back-to-back 3-pointers by senior Lynsey Curran.
The Spartans dusted themselves off and closed the quarter with an 8-2 run to tie the game 12-12 heading into the second quarter. That's when East took over and controlled things until that short stretch of the fourth quarter.
East opened the second quarter with a 9-1 run to go ahead 21-13 before consecutive layups by Weidemann cut Westside's deficit to four. The Spartans responded by closing the half with an 8-2 run for a 29-19 lead.
"We played hard and we never quit, but they played better," Westside coach Steve Clark said. "They made some free throws, hit some 3s and got two and-ones in transition."
The Spartans led 41-29 heading into the fourth and scored the first four points of that quarter before Westside went on its 12-2 run to close the gap to six.
Barry said the Spartans' big second quarter and the strong finish happened because the seven seniors on the team had a goal to end East's state tourney drought.