'Unleash the beast': Wildcats' Johnson steals show in district showdown between top guards

By Bill Althaus

Summer AAU teammates Jada Williams and Grace Slaughter had never met in an official high school game until Monday.

And the anticipation for the matchup of the pair of highly recruited star sophomore guards for Blue Springs and Grain Valley was palpable.

But Blue Springs junior guard Ja’Cole Johnson stole the show.

And no one was more excited than Williams after her backcourt mate led the top-seeded Wildcats past the Eagles 54-32 in a Class 6 District 14 semifinal at Blue Springs High School.

Grain Valley guard Grace Slaughter, left, protects the ball while being defended by Blue Springs guard Jada Williams in Monday's Class 6 District 14 semifinal at Blue Springs. Slaughter scored 22 points to Williams' 15 in the much anticipated matchup of highly recruited sophomores, but Williams and the Wildcats claimed a 54-32 win and a spot in Thursday's district championship game.

“We unleashed the beast!” cried out Williams, referring to Johnson, whose three consecutive 3-point baskets in the third quarter padded the Wildcats lead to 33-21 at the 2:01 mark. “She’s my backcourt mate, and I am so proud of her. That girl works so hard on her 3-point shot and it paid off tonight. We unleashed the beast!”

Johnson, a soft-spoken 5-foot-5 guard, is anything but beastly off the court. But her monster performance paved the way for the double-digit win that sets the stage for the 7 p.m. Thursday championship game at home against Raytown (17-7), a 78-74 winner over Blue Springs South.

Blue Springs junior guard Ja'Cole Johnson sinks one of her three key 3-pointers in the third quarter of a Class 6 District 14 semifinal against Grain Valley. Johnson finished with 12 points to help spark the top-seeded Wildcats to a 54-32 win.

“I like to shoot threes and I work hard on my 3-point shooting,” said Johnson, who finished with 12 points. “We were kind of struggling offensively and I was happy to get the offense going. I thought my third 3-pointer gave us a double-digit lead, but I was too much into the game to worry about the score.”

Wildcats coach Mark Spigarelli lavished praise on his team.

“Ja’Cole changed the game – the entire game,” Spigarelli said after his team improved to 15-5 with its seventh straight win. “It took a little while for our offense to get going, and those threes were huge.”

Spigarelli’s game plan was simple, but it had to be executed to perfection to stop the Eagles and area scoring leader Grace Slaughter, the Mizzou commit who was averaging just more than 28 points a game.

“We’d seen teams use a box-and-one, and it might have slowed down Grace – who is an amazing player – but her teammates were left open and they did some damage,” Spigarelli explained.

“We used Cam (Camryn Collins) and Jada and kept rotating our defense to have a fresh player on Grace because we knew she was going to score some points, but we didn’t want the rest of the team to do any damage.”

And they didn’t.

Slaughter scored a game-high 22 points, and the rest of the team combined for 10 points. She topped Williams’ 15 points but Williams and the Wildcats took the win.

“Spig is a great coach,” Eagles coach Randy Draper said after his team finished 14-7 and had its four-game winning streak snapped. “They made us work for everything we got tonight.

“But you know what? I’m happy with my kids. We lose a couple of great seniors in Gabbi (Keim) and Jordyn (Weems, along with Malia Gutierrez, who was injured and did not play in the postseason), but we have a lot of young players back and now that they’ve had a taste of the postseason, they will know what to expect next year.”

And Slaughter is going to make sure they are prepared.

“Blue Springs is so good, and so deep – they never get tired,” said Slaughter, who already surpassed 1,000 career points in just her second high school season. “This is a tough one to go out on, but I’m already making a list of things I have to work on to be a better player next season.

“And that means going to the gym, going to the weight room – and I’m taking all my teammates with me. I’m bringing everyone – we’ve already talked about it.”