With 2 minutes and 46 seconds left in the third period at Lee's Summit North High School Thursday night, Broncos senior guard Erica Nelson stood at mid-court, awaiting directions from coach Tricia Lillygren.
The Broncos held a 25-19 lead over visiting Blue Springs High School, and the coach directed her team to go into a four-corner spread offense.
“That's all right,” Wildcats coach Mark Spigarelli called out to his team, “we'll go into the fourth quarter down six.”
The Broncos stood still.
So did the Wildcats.
Then, with 11 seconds left on the scoreboard clock, Nelson took the ball to the top of the arc, dribbled past a defender and hit a 3-point shot that gave the Broncos a 28-19 lead.
North then withstood a furious Blue Springs comeback to claim a 36-34 win on Imani Johnson's layup with three seconds left.
“Give those North girls a lot of credit,” Spigarelli said. “(Nelson) hit a big 3-pointer – I really thought we'd go into the fourth quarter in a two-possession game – and she made the shot. And Johnson hits the big shot at the end.
“We gave it everything we had and just came up a little short. They beat us at our place 56-19, so this is one of those rare nights where I can walk out of a gym after a two-point loss smiling. I feel like we won the game because the girls fought so hard and made that great comeback.”
Aliyah Lee stole the ball with 11 seconds left in regulation and tied the game on a basket-to-basket layup, but there was still time for Johnson – the Broncos' all-time scoring leader – to grab an offensive board and hit the game-winner at the other end of the court.
“Blue Springs fought back so hard,” said Johnson, who scored a game-high 15 points and started the second half with two blocks, two offensive boards and a layup. “They are a much better team than the first time we played them. You have to respect a team that works that hard to come back and tie the game late like that. I'm just happy we won.”
So was Nelson, who said she felt comfortable holding onto the ball nearly three minutes at the end of the third quarter.
“It didn't seem that long to me, but it must have seemed like a long time to everyone else because that's all anyone is talking about,” Nelson said. “It went from 2 minutes and 46 seconds to about 50 seconds real quick.
“We knew what we wanted to do at the end of the quarter, and I'm just thankful I made that basket. I heard their coach say they'd go into the fourth quarter trailing by six. We felt better with that nine-point lead.”
Blue Springs' Brianna Tauai led the Wildcats' comeback by scoring six of her team-high 14 points in the fourth quarter.
“We almost came all the way back,” Tauai said. “We didn't get the chance to play a lot of basketball in third quarter, but once we got to back into our offense, we did all right.”
With the win, the 18-4 Broncos clinched at least a share of the title in the tough Suburban Big Six with a 7-1 record. A win would have tied the Wildcats for first place at 6-2 but they fell to 5-3 in the conference and 11-13 overall.
“At this time of the year, you'll take a win any way you can,” Lillygren said. “Hindsight is always 20/20, and I think we did the right thing at the end of the third quarter. Erica hit a big basket, and we never panicked in the fourth quarter when they were making their comeback.
“I thought the girls played an intelligent game. Sometimes it's better to play smarter than harder. That is a much-improved Blue Springs team, and we played within ourselves and found a way to win.”