COLUMBIA, Mo. – They managed some smiles and light clapping – not much of the immediate jubilation one might anticipate from a group of players who just advanced to the state championship game.
More than anything, the Lee’s Summit North girls basketball players wore looks of relief after holding on in the fourth quarter for a 76-70 win over the Eureka in the Class 5 semifinals at Mizzou Arena.
North (24-5) plays top-ranked Columbia Rock Bridge, a 57-46 winner over St. Joseph’s Academy, in Saturday’s state championship game at 2:40 p.m. The Broncos were primed to cruise into that matchup after leading by 23 in the third quarter and taking a 60-39 lead into the fourth quarter.
“I’ve got to hand it to Eureka,” North coach Tricia Lillygren said. “They had a fantastic second half and had a set of buckets that almost did us in. We had way too many turnovers.”
Eureka (26-3), which needed a 9-1 closing run just to get within 34-23 by halftime, unleashed its full-court press to start the fourth and produced turnovers on North’s first four possessions to fuel a frantic rally.
Imani Johnson ended the Broncos’ scoring drought with a jumper at the 5-minute mark to make it 62-48, but Eureka closed to 64-59 with 2:17 left on Kelsey Tepen’s putback and consecutive steals and easy layups by Lindsey McCoy and Tepen. A Jessica Moore 3-pointer made it 68-64 with 57 seconds showing.
All the while though, North had productive trips to the free throw line. After Johnson’s jumper, the Broncos scored their last 14 points from the stripe on 20 attempts. Aaliyah Johnson added a key rebound at each end, and LaChelle Parks’ rebound and two free throws with 8.6 left clinched the win.
Imani Johnson, the DiRenna Award finalist who played the last four minutes with four fouls, said the Broncos needed “just patience, staying within ourselves,” to survive the fourth quarter.
“This whole experience means everything to me,” said Johnson, who finished a stat-stuffing game with 24 points, nine rebounds, six blocks, four assists and three steals. “I definitely want to go out with a bang.”
Early on, it was Eureka trying to survive, as Erica Nelson guided a North offense that sliced apart the Wildcat defense. Nelson assisted the Broncos’ first four baskets and finished the first half with 12 points, including a pair of 3-pointers, and six assists.
Moore acknowledged that Nelson gave the Wildcats fits.
“If you don’t get low on her, she’s going to go right by you,” said Moore, who led Eureka with 20 points. “You can’t step back, because she’ll shoot the 3, and she can make it every time. She was really good, a hard player to guard.”
Parks and Imani Johnson also had treys for the Broncos, who led 18-8 after one quarter and assisted on all but their last field goal – a Nelson post-up in the last minute – of the first half.
Of their 24 field goals, the Broncos assisted on 18 of them.
“I think that’s just the way we play,” said Nelson, who racked up 26 points, eight assists and three steals. “We’re all unselfish people and unselfish players.”
“That was a pretty good team down the sideline,” Eureka coach James Alsup said. “They were hard to guard today.”
The Wildcats shot a frustrating 8 of 29 in the first half (25 of 63 overall) and committed 17 turnovers overall, partially negating North’s 20 turnovers. Torrie Allen (4 assists) and Tepen (13 rebounds) added 14 points apiece for Eureka, and Lindsey McCoy added 10 points, seven rebounds and six steals.
“We went in there attacking, but we weren’t getting to the foul line and we weren’t finishing,” Alsup said of the first half.
Transition hoops by Moore and Tepen had Eureka within 40-31 in the third, but after Lillygren called timeout with 4:28 left, Nelson responded with back-to-back 3-pointers. Imani Johnson and Parks again added treys to make it 52-34, Nelson’s steal and behind-the-back assist to Jaden Powell made it 54-34, and Stevie Anderson added a steal and layup to produce a 58-35 advantage that ultimately proved too big for Eureka.
“When anybody’s on their ‘A’ game, it inspires everybody else to be on their ‘A’ game,” Imani Johnson said.
Parks backed Nelson and Johnson with 10 points, Anderson chipped in seven points and six rebounds and Powell six points and four assists.
“It was probably up there with some of better performances,” Lillygren said of her team’s first half. “We just made some good shots.
“I think they were focused and ready to go. It’s a big task to take everything in at once, and I’m really proud of the way the kids were in control.”