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Eagles storm back, advance to final

By Bill Althaus
Grain Valley's Gabbi Keim, center, and Grace Slaughter, right, battle Notre Dame de Sion's Olivia Shively for a rebound under the basket during their Pleasant Hill Tournament semifinal Wednesday. Grain Valley rallied for a 58-46 win and a berth in Friday's championship.

PLEASANT HILL, Mo. – Grain Valley freshman Finley LaForge saw her opportunity open up.

Trailing 39-38 to Notre Dame de Sion in the fourth quarter of a Pleasant Hill Tournament semifinal, the freshman suddenly found herself all alone in the corner. She knew she needed to help take the pressure off all-state sophomore guard Grace Slaughter.

So when Notre Dame’s Shannon Karlin stepped back from guarding her in the corner, LaForge let go of a perfect rainbow that hit nothing but net, giving the Eagles their first lead since early in the second quarter.

The 41-39 lead turned into a 58-46 victory and a spot in Friday’s 7 p.m. championship game against Grandview.

“I really felt comfortable when I took that shot,” said LaForge, who finished with nine points. “She backed off and I had an open look. I didn’t realize at the time it gave us the lead. I just knew we needed to open things up inside for Grace and a 3-point basket could do that.”

Grain Valley coach Randy Draper does a double fist pump to celebrate Finley LaForge's 3-pointer from the corner to give the Eagles a 41-39 lead in Wednesday's Pleasant Hill Tournament semifinal. The Eagles never trailed after that on the way to a 58-46 win.

The Eagles have not won the tournament since 1991. Now they have a chance thanks to LaForge and fellow freshman McKenah Sears, who emerged from the shadows to help the Eagles take command.

After a five-point third quarter that saw the Eagles trail the Storm 34-28 going into the final period, LaForge and Sears helped lead the comeback.

Slaughter hit a 3-point basket at 5:23 to knot the score at 38-all. Karlin, who led the Storm with 21 points, then hit one of two free throws to five the Storm the 39-38 advantage, their final lead of the game.

Grain Valley freshman McKenah Sears (23) celebrates a 3-pointer made on the court in the Eagles 58-46 win over Notre Dame de Sion in the semifinals of the Pleasant Hill Tournament Wednesday. Sears provided some key ball handling and free throws down the stretch to help the Eagles advance to Friday's championship game.

Slaughter and the Eagles took charge from there. Slaughter, who has already verbally committed to Missouri, scored 13 of her team-high 24 points in the final frame, and Sears, the cool, calm and collected freshman guard, made six consecutive free throws to keep the Storm on the horizon.

“We put McKenah in at the end of the game because she can handle the ball, and you saw what she can do at the line,” said Grain Valley coach Randy Draper, who was thrilled to see his youngsters take a big varsity step against the Storm.

“This was a grownup game, and our young kids grew up a lot tonight. I saw the big kid drop off Finley, and she took that 3-point shot and I was like, ‘Yes!’ That was huge. When we started hitting some 3s it took a little of the pressure off Grace inside and she could drive to the basket and get a layup or get fouled.”

Grain Valley freshman Finley LaForge, front, gets past Notre Dame de Sion defender Katelyn Brinkman for a fast-break shot in their Pleasant Hill Tournament semifinal Wednesday. LaForge hit a key 3-pointer in the fourth quarter to help the Eagles rally for a 58-46 victory.

Slaughter was 6 of 6 from the line in the fourth quarter and added two field goals and the long 3-pointer to keep the Storm from making any kind of a comeback.

“I’m so proud of our girls – all of them,” Slaughter said. “Finley’s 3-pointer was her biggest basket of the year, and that’s when things kind of opened up inside for me. And McKenah is one of the best free throw shooters I’ve ever played with. She hits them in practice and she hits them in game. She was huge tonight. It was such a fun game!”

Sears then gave a coach’s worthy assessment of the win.

“With them playing Grace with a box-and-one all night, we knew we had to start hitting from outside to free her up inside, and we were able to do that,” said Sears, who hit a 3-pointer and added the six free throws to finish with nine points. “Finley’s 3-pointer was so big because it gave us our first lead in the fourth quarter, and when we got that lead we were like, ‘No way they’re getting the lead again tonight!’”

Grain Valley's Grace Slaughter goes up for a shot under pressure from Notre Dame de Sion's Katelyn Brinkman in a Pleasant Hill Tournament semifinal Wednesday. Slaughter scored 24 points - 13 in the final quarter - to lead the Eagles to a 58-46 come-from-behind victory/

Slaughter grinned, and nodded in agreement.

“Can you believe they’re freshmen?” she said, giving a high-five to Laforge and Sears. “We’ve seen them grow up all season, and they really grew up tonight.”

Draper listened to his players – two freshmen and a sophomore sensation – talk about the game, sporting an ear-to-ear grin.

“We saw a lot of young players grow up right before our eyes tonight, and it was a beautiful thing,” Draper said. “This is one of those games we’re going to be able to look back at and say, ‘Remember when our freshmen became grownups?’ Tonight was the night.”