Before every game, each player for the Lee’s Summit North girls basketball team writes something on their wrists – a quote, word, name or phrase that is meaningful to them.
It’s something the Broncos have used to help further build their team chemistry.
“We all put something special there that we want to take with us to the court,” North guard Alexis Griffin said. “Mine is ‘last chance’ for my senior year. Tiana (Gipson) puts her uncle’s name on there because he’s sick. And (Zakiyyah Winston) put ‘siempre’ on there, which means ‘always’ in Spanish.”
That chemistry has showed recently after a slow start to the season. After starting the season 3-3, North started figuring things out and has gone 18-2 since and notched a win against No. 4 state-ranked Lee’s Summit West in the Class 5 District 13 championship game; and a 47-46 overtime thrilling win over No. 1 North Kansas City in the sectional round Tuesday.
“I think we’ve gone into another area of our game since playing West here,” North coach Tricia Lillygren said. “We’ve stepped it up a little bit and have been playing like every game is worth everything.
“We’ve had a tough year, but we’ve overcome our struggles on and off the floor.”
The win against a loaded Hornets team appeared to prove that the Broncos can compete with anyone.
It doesn’t get any easier for North though as it will play in the Class 5 state quarterfinals at 1 p.m. Saturday against Liberty (20-7) at Silverstein Eye Centers Arena. The two teams met on Dec. 11, which the Blue Jays won 53-48. However, the Broncos didn’t have junior starting guard Anija Frazier, someone who Griffin said makes a big difference.
Liberty likely will focus their attention on 6-foot-3 North senior forward Aiyana Johnson, who has drawn double- and triple-teams for most of the season. She’s averaged 18.4 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. Backing her up offensively is a trio of guards in Gipson, Griffin and Micaela Dickerson.
Gipson, an all-state player who transferred from O’Hara, is the second leading scorer on the team with 12.8 points per game. Griffin and Dickerson have been a hard-working, hard-nosed combo that have become adept at rebounding from the guard position, combining for 9.2 boards per game and they also have a combined 13.6 points per game. Add in a defensive stalwart like Frazier, who not only leads the team in steals (1.5 per game) but can score (7.1 points per game), and that’s a balanced team.
Liberty, too, is balanced. In a 50-40 win over Truman in districts, the Blue Jays displayed balance on offense as point guard Olivia Nelson and forward Kayel Newland led the team with 14 points each.
“Not only can (Newland) shoot 3-pointers, she’s strong and can score with her back to the basket,’ Lillygren said. “She’s good at splitting the defense, and the tail end of her offense has her coming off a screen. Then their little point guard (Nelson) is so feisty defensively. She’s got the ability to score, but I think she’s content delivering the ball to the other players.”
All five Liberty starters are capable of scoring from near every spot on the floor, especially Nelson and Newland, who combined to shoot 9 of 10 from 3-point range against the Patriots. The Broncos know their perimeter defense will have to be on point.
“Kayel is definitely their spark, and if we handle her on the outside and stay good on the inside, we’ll be good against her,” Gipson said. “(Nelson) is quick. We just need to stay in front of her.”
So what is it going to take for North to advance to its first state final four since 2014?
“It’s going to take hard work and dedication,” Dickerson said. “We’ve been playing really good as a team lately. That led us to a W Tuesday.”