The Lee’s Summit North girls have earned this trip to state, no doubt about it.
Consider what the Broncos went through last week in Class 5 postseason play: first, they held off a strong Truman team in sectionals that had only one loss and two wins over the Broncos. Then came the quarterfinals slugfest March 15 with North Kansas City, in which the Hornets pushed, scraped and clawed their way back from an early deficit before the Broncos escaped with a 49-44 victory at the Independence Events Center.
Now North, 23-5, can look forward to playing Eureka, 26-2, at 3:30 p.m. March 20 in the state semifinals at Mizzou Arena in Columbia. By then the Broncos should have plenty of time to recover from a game that featured much physical play and a lost tooth.
“They’ve been crazy games, haven’t they?” North coach Tricia Lillygren said. “We have certainly played tight, tough competition ballgames to get where we are.”
This one didn’t appear to be so tough or tight at first, not after North strung together a 13-2 run over the first and second quarters for a 23-10 lead. The Broncos were doing what they do best –getting great looks under the basket for senior forward Imani Johnson with pinpoint assists from point guard Eric Nelson.
But all that changed in the third quarter, when Northtown ramped up its intensity and started making shots. Led by sharp-shooting guard Aries Washington, Northtown opened the third quarter with a 10-0 run and cut the Broncos lead to 27-26. North was held scoreless until Jaden Powell hit a free throw five minutes into the period.
“After the half, you have to give a lot of credit to Northtown,” Lillygren said. “They stepped up their defense, our timing was quite as sharp as it could’ve been and we went through that huge drought at the beginning of the third quarter which allowed them to sneak up on us and make a real game out of it.”
Northtown would never lead, but it never quit pushing the Broncos around. Bodies flew, whistles blew, and Powell found herself with one less tooth. With 43 seconds left she was pushed from the back by a Northtown player and hit the floor face first. She had to be helped off the floor after the medical staff found her suddenly missing tooth.
“Most of our games are physical; that one however was way physical,” Lillygren said. “Jaden is a little sore, but she’ll be all right by the time we get to playing.”
Johnson made sure the Broncos were all right by hitting eight of 10 free throws over the final minute. Half of her team-leading 22 points, in fact, came in the final quarter.
“My heart was definitely beating,” Johnson said. “It was pretty intense the whole fourth quarter. We had to keep our heads together.”
Nerve-wracking as it may have been, Lillygren said the Broncos’ recent experience could benefit them as they play in the fourth Final Four in the program’s history and their first since making three straight from 2000-2002.
“Back in our earlier run … the first couple of years we weren’t tested very often.” Lillygren said. “That really came back to haunt us, I think. We didn’t face a whole lot of adversity sometimes in the ballgames, and you can’t say that this year. We’ve been tested a lot and that made us better in those situations.”
And after passing those tests, the Broncos are prepared for a well-earned trip to Columbia.
“It’s been a long time coming, so we’re definitely ready for this,” Johnson said.