An unbelievable 2016-17 regular season ended with a gut punch for the Lee’s Summit North girls basketball team.
The Broncos ended the regular season 24-0, but ended up falling to Belton 47-46 in a heartbreaking district semifinal loss.
It could have been a special season for North, but it was not meant to be. But since then, the team has turned the page.
North will have a different look to it as one half of their all-state forward sister combo – Aaliyah Johnson – has graduated and is now playing at Stephen F. Austin University in Texas.
But the Broncos return three starters, including all-state forward and sister Aiyana Johnson and guards Anija Frazier and Alexis Griffin. In addition, Micaela Dickerson, who shot 44 percent from the floor as a guard off the bench last season, will serve as a swingman for her team.
“Some kids are going to have some different roles this year,” North coach Tricia Lillygren said. “We just have to figure out what those are. It’s like a puzzle.”
The previous three years, the Broncos have depended a lot on Aiyana and Aaliyah Johnson using their height to get putbacks and baskets in the paint. They were more of a half-court offense that liked to slow the pace.
Things will be a little different for the 2017-18 season. North is becoming more a guard-oriented, fast -paced team, and a big part of that is the transfer of an all-state point guard from the now closed O’Hara High School in Tiana Gipson.
“She gives us that extra guard that’s a good shooter and passer,” Lillygren said. “She’s got great shooting range. She’s also got a lot of speed and athleticism, which is always a plus.
“We’re not as big as we were last year. We’re smaller, but that’s OK.”
Added Griffin: “We’re a lot faster this year and will play a lot of transition offense.”
Gipson, a senior who is listed as a three-star recruit on ESPN.com, brings a new dynamic to the North offense. She is a speedy guard who’s effective at shooting the 3-pointer and is regarded as one of the best passers in the metro area.
Last season with the Celtics, she averaged 17 points, 3.3 steals and 3.7 assists per game. Gipson also shot an outstanding 49 percent from 3-point range and 48 percent from the field.
She said it’s been an adjustment going from a Class 3 team in O’Hara to a Class 5 team in North, but she said she is looking forward to playing with a fellow all-state player in Aiyana Johnson, who averaged a team-high 14.8 and 8.2 points per game.
“Everyone here has treated me pretty good,” Gipson said. “ They’re already like family. I actually grew up with Aiyana. We played together in fifth grade. It was good to get that connection back together. I am pretty excited about it.”
For Gipson, this is the year she hopes to break through and get some Division I offers. So far, she’s gotten a handful of offers from Division II programs. It’s been a challenge for the senior as her lack of size at 5-foot-4 could be the cause of some bigger colleges overlooking her.
“It’s been kind of hard not getting some of the looks that I want,” Gipson admitted. “The ones that have offered me noticed my speed and everything else that will work in college. I’ve gotten some looks from Missouri S&T and Fort Hays State, mostly D-II schools. But I am looking to change that this year.”
Lillygren added that Gipson still has some work to do when it comes to getting acclimated to North offensive and defensive sets.
“I am looking forward to see what her learning curve is with what we do,” Lillygren said. “That’s a challenge for anyone coming to the team.”
Even with the loss of Aaliyah Johnson, starting guard Jordan Jennings and TaT’yanna Stewart, the Broncos are still brimming with talent. Two of the main goals for them are winning the district tournament and repeat as champions of the Suburban Big Seven Conference – two things North seems well equipped to do.
“It’s going to be hard to measure up to what we did last year,” Lillygren said of finishing the regular season undefeated. “If that would happen to happen, that’s phenomenal. But that’s not what we’re shooting for. We want to do better in the playoffs that we did last year.”
Added Griffin: “We still have very high expectations still.”