Seated at the head table in the interview room of Mizzou Arena, Imani Johnson received a question asking for insight on how the Lee’s Summit North girls basketball team struggled so mightily to stay within range of a sprouted, star-studded Columbia Rock Bridge team.
The senior forward started by saying her team knew it had to keep the game a low-scoring affair, then paused and stumbled to find more words. Her coach, Tricia Lillygren, came to the rescue.
“It’s hard to put into words what just happened out there,” Lillygren said with a little smile after North absorbed a 62-45 thumping at the Bruins’ hands in Saturday’s Class 5 state championship game.
“Hat’s off to Rock Bridge; what a phenomenal team they have,” she said after her Broncos finished a 24-6 season. “We played, fought and finally toward the end started putting on the floor what we’re capable of doing.
“We needed to come here and play our best game. Obviously they’re not your typical high school team with the size, ability and athletes they have.”
The nationally ranked Bruins (27-3), who won their third-straight state title Saturday and fourth in seven years, trotted out a starting five ranging from 5-foot-11 to 6-4, all slated to play college ball at Kansas, Missouri or Missouri State. They scored the game’s first 10 points, forged a 22-4 lead early in the second quarter and led by as much as 29 before North scored the game’s final 12 points over the last two-plus minutes.
Sophie Cunningham was the Bruins’ ringleader, as the 6-1 junior point guard netted 23 points with five assists and four steals.
“We knew Rock Bridge is a tremendous team,” North senior point guard Erica Nelson said. “Any team that has 6-foot girls running through there, that coach would be the happiest in the world.”
Rock Bridge’s defense harassed on the perimeter and suffocated the interior, as North didn’t get a field goal until Johnson’s 3-pointer more than six minutes in made it 12-4.
That was the score after one quarter, and the Broncos’ next field goal didn’t come until Johnson’s jumper at the 5:21 mark of the second. Before that, Audrey Holt’s steal marked North’s 11th turnover and resulted in Chayla Cheadle’s layup for a 22-4 lead. Rock Bridge led 32-14 at halftime.
“I thought our defense was incredible,” Cheadle said. “We kept switching it up so they didn’t know what was coming.”
Johnson had 10 of her team-high 18 points in the second quarter, but Jaden Powell’s putback with 1:17 left in the third marked the first field goal by a player other than Johnson and the first points outside of Johnson and Nelson.
Nelson admitted that she and her teammates might well have been intimidated.
“Rock Bridge basically had a home-court advantage,” she said. “I think once we realized we’re not playing an NBA team, we weren’t playing the Miami Heat and LeBron James wasn’t on the other side, we just had to stay focused and play Lee’s Summit North basketball.”
“You never want to start a game in a hole like that,” Lillygren added. “Being on this grand stage, and the size of the squad we played, players can have a shaky start."
North’s final flurry included three steals by Stevie Anderson and one by LaChelle Parks, the latter coming in between two 3-pointers by Nelson. She swished a 25-foot bomb with 27 seconds left, then tracked down an offensive rebound in the corner and turned to fire in a buzzer-beater.
“This year’s been awesome,” said Nelson, who finished with 14 points on 4-of-16 shooting. “Coming down here, being in front of all of you, I’m just happy to be a Bronco.”
Added Johnson: “This whole experience has been great, to be down here and spend time with my teammates and coaches.”
Anderson, a senior transfer, added six points and four steals and Aaliyah Johnson had six rebounds for the Broncos, who shot 14 of 49 and committed 19 turnovers.
Cierra Porter, a 6-4 junior who like Cunningham has given a verbal commitment to Missouri for college basketball, had 16 points (10 of 10 on free throws) and four assists for Rock Bridge. Abrianna Porter, who had missed the Bruins’ last three postseasons due to knee surgeries, added 12 points, Cheadle had 10 points and Holt grabbed seven rebounds. Rock Bridge totaled seven blocks.
“Kansas City is an extremely tough district to play in, and Coach Lillygren has done a great job,” Rock Bridge coach Jill Nagel said. “It’s extremely tough to win a state championship. What these kids have put together for three years is extremely special.”