COLUMBIA – As they sat in the interview room after getting walloped by Columbia Rock Bridge in the Class 5 girls state basketball final, Lee’s Summit North seniors Imani Johnson and Erica Nelson struggled to describe what hit them.
What happened to the Broncos’ offense, which seemed so in synch in the semifinals against Eureka the game before? Why did Rock Bridge stymie the Broncos so as it romped to a 62-45 victory March 22 at Mizzou Arena and its third consecutive state title?
Even their coach, Tricia Lillygren, had trouble finding an explanation.
“It’s hard to put in words what we just experienced coming off of that floor,” Lillygren said.
The best explanation is that Rock Bridge, 26-3, was just deeper and more talented than North or any other team in the state. And the Bruins used that depth, size and Division-I talent to take command early and deny the Broncos a shot at their second state title and first since 2002.
“My hat’s off to Rock Bridge, what a phenomenal team they have,” Lillygren said. “They aren’t the typical high school team. With our size and depth, we had to come out and play our very best.”
North, 24-5, didn’t play its best. The Broncos made only 14 of their 49 shots (28.6 percent) and committed 19 turnovers. Rock Bridge had a lot to do with that, of course. The Bruins’ starting five stands 5-foot-11 or taller and they used their size and quickness to frustrate the Broncos with a variety of defenses.
It also didn’t help that Rock Bridge put five Division-I recruits on the floor. Sophie Cunningham, a junior who has committed to Missouri, led the Bruins with 23 points. Cierra Porter, another MU commit, had 16 points and went 10 for 10 from the line. Abrianna Porter, also committed to MU, had 12 points and Chayla Cheadle (Kansas) chipped in 10. Kayla Cheadle, Chayla’s sister, is a Kansas volleyball recruit.
Rock Bridge took charge early, racing out to a 10-0 lead in the game’s first four minutes and 12-4 after the first quarter. The Bruins opened the second quarter with another 10-0 spurt and it was 32-14 by halftime.
“I think a little of that was intimidation,” North senior guard Erica Nelson said. “I think we had to realize it was just another high school team, you know, LeBron James wasn’t out there on that floor.”
North looked less intimidated in the second half, but by then it was too late. Rock Bridge built a 62-33 lead before a late flurry by the Broncos pulled them back within 17 at the end.
“We did get off to a shaky and jittery start,” Lillygren said. “But I told the kids if there’s one thing that they learned today it’s to trust in their abilities and not hold back. And we saw that later in the game.”
North held nothing back early in its 76-68 semifinal victory March 20 over Eureka. The Broncos used their superior size and guard play to get the ball to Johnson and led 60-39 going into the fourth quarter.
But Eureka made a game of it in the final period. The Wildcats turned up the defensive pressure and started forcing turnovers, which helped them outscore North 26-8 and pull back within four points. The Broncos needed to go eight for 10 from the line in the final minute to put them away.
“We have to hand it to Eureka,” Lillygren said. “They did a fantastic job in the second half. We are just happy that we were able to overcome when we got the chance.”
Nelson closed out her Bronco career with 26 points against Eureka and 14 against Rock Bridge, while Johnson, who will play for Southeast Missouri State next season, finished with 24 against Eureka and 18 against Rock Bridge.
For both seniors and the rest of the team, it was a bittersweet ending to their successful season.
“The whole experience has been great to come down here with my teammates and my coaches,” Johnson said. “I’ve enjoyed it and it’s meant a lot to me.”