'Dream crushers': Tigers throw wrench in Wildcats' playoff hopes
Blue Springs coach Adam Jones told his players this season that they were set on ruining the plans and hopes of any opponents in their path.
But the shoe was on the other foot Tuesday night.
Host Lee’s Summit used a stifling zone defense, some timely 3-pointers and some clutch free throws to upend the Wildcats for a 66-61 victory in their Class 6 boys basketball sectional playoff.
“We talked this year about being dream crushers, and tonight we were crushed,” Jones said after his team finished 19-6 to go along with a district title.
“It was frustrating. Lee’s Summit just played really well. They came out and played with confidence and executed their game plan and kind of took us out of what we were trying to do, and our kids struggled throughout the game recovering from it.”
That game plan was to shut down Blue Springs’ standout junior shooting guard Braden Appelhans. He drained 8 of 9 3-pointers and finished with 26 points in the Wildcats’ district championship win over Raytown.
Lee’s Summit coach Blake Little was determined not to let that happen again.
“The key early for us was defensively,” Little said of his Tigers (16-7), who will host Friday’s state quarterfinal against No. 9-ranked Liberty (24-3), which knocked off No. 3 Staley 66-53. “I thought we did a really nice job of really following our game plan. We were trying to face-guard Appelhans and make somebody else beat us.
“... Those things really kind of allowed us to get our footing under us. And I thought we executed well offensively and took the shots we wanted to take and then held on for dear life there in the last minute and a half.”
Appelhans had a hard time even getting his hands on the ball as Lee’s Summit’s zone defense collapsed on him time after time.
“It was difficult because we couldn’t get a good jump from the start. It was just frustrating all the way through,” a dejected Appelhans said after he was consoled alone on the bench following the season-ending loss. “They were face-guarding me and denying the passing lanes, making it hard for us.
“It sucks. No one likes to lose, especially when you get this far in the playoffs. It just sucks.”
While Jones said the Wildcats came out somewhat stagnant, Little said his team is showing a lot of emotion and coming together at the right time.
“I think our team just has confidence right now. You get to this level and your team believes,” Little said. “The hard thing about any season – and especially one during a pandemic – is you don’t get to spend the time together you typically do to build the trust and build the relationships. For us, we’re an emotional team, so we have to trust each other when we move the ball and do things.
“And it took time to build that trust. I feel like our guys have bought in and really trust one another and are really playing well together. And that’s what we emphasize – passion and confidence together – and we have those three things going right now.”
The Tigers’ confidence began to grow after Blue Springs grabbed a 25-23 lead on an Eli Wingert dunk and Mike Harrison basket on a pair of deft passes by Kyle Bruce with 3:20 left in the first half.
Lee’s Summit went on a 10-4 run to close the half – capped by Landen Shepard’s 3-pointer – and take a 33-29 lead. The Tigers would never surrender that advantage again, though the Wildcats would close within three, four or five points several times.
Brycen LaRue carried the Tigers in the third quarter with eight of his game-high 18 points.
Lee’s Summit then sank six straight free throws – by Luke McDonald, LaRue and Monte Kemp – to start the fourth quarter and build its biggest lead, 51-40.
Blue Springs slowly chipped away and got within 58-54 on Harrison’s basket with 2:07 left. Appelhans sank his second and last 3-pointer with 29 seconds left to make it 62-59.
But Alex Benassi and Kemp sank four straight free throws in the closing seconds to ice it.
“Like we’ve done all year I thought we made a really good push there at the end and tried to give ourselves a chance,” Jones said, “but we were running out of timeouts and running out of fouls and Lee’s Summit executed down the stretch.
“... I give Lee’s Summit a lot of credit. They did a good job and played physical and they play the same style of basketball we’re trying to play. They got us tonight.”
Ezeogu, despite some early foul trouble, led the Wildcats with 15 points and nine rebounds. Harrison tallied 13 points, Wingert had 11 and Appelhans and Bruce each finished with 10.
McDonald added 12 points and Benassi finished with 11 as the Tigers converted on 15 of 20 free throws in the fourth quarter and finished 19 of 27 to end the season for Blue Springs, which will lose Wingert and reserve guard John Ammons to graduation.
Appelhans said the loss will serve as motivation to crush another team’s dreams next season.
“Hopefully we’ll be back in the same spot next year,” he said, “and we can go farther.”