Tigers now feel they belong among the final four

dmcqueen@lsjournal.comMarch 17, 2017 

Lee’s Summit junior guard Claire Lock is averaging a team-leading 14.1 points pre game for the Tigers, who face St. Joseph’s Academy in the Class 5 state semifinals Friday at Mizzou Arena in Columbia. The Tigers are making their first appearance in the girls state tournament since 2005.

FRED POESE — Special to the Journal

The shock has worn off now for the Lee’s Summit girls basketball team.

The Tigers are no longer surprised to be where they are – two victories away from a state championship after spending most of the year with a losing record. With each postseason victory the Tigers were starting to feel a sense of entitlement.

So when Lee’s Summit (15-13), takes on St. Joseph’s Academy of St. Louis (20-8) at 6 p.m. Friday in the Class 5 state semifinals at Mizzou Arena, the Tigers aren’t going to feel like the odd team out. They’ll go in feeling they belong.

“I don’t think the girls are freaked out or scared or intimidated at all,” Lee’s Summit coach Jessica Crawford said. “We’ve watched film on (St. Joseph’s) and they’re all pretty excited, and I think they’re just going to go out there and play as hard as they can.”

Crawford could sense the Tigers’ confidence growing with each postseason victory. After beating Lee’s Summit West in the district semifinals, they knocked off a Belton team in the district final made the state quarterfinal last season, and gutted out victories over North Kansas City and Park Hill to reach the final four.

“Honestly, throughout those four games that it took to get to this point, there’s not (moment) where I felt like we were going to lose,” Crawford said. “We kind of felt like we were going to win every game.”

Claire Burch, a senior forward and a team captain, said the Tigers really started to feel like they belonged after beating Belton.

“After that game, our whole mindset kicked in that we deserve to be here and we’ve worked hard to get to this spot,” Burch said. “In practice we definitely stepped it up a lot. That game was definitely a game-changer for us in attitude.”

That attitude didn’t change after the Tigers got their first look at St. Joseph’s. The Angels, who are in the final four for a record-tying 16th time, are a very tall team that likes to pound the ball inside to posts Kelly McLaughlin and Alex Kerr. McLaughlin, a 6-foot-3 senior, averages 17.4 points and 12.2 rebounds a game. Kerr, a 6-2 junior, averages 12.3 points and 9.3 rebounds.

Lee’s Summit of course has plenty of experience against twin-tower teams. St. Joseph’s reminds Crawford of Lee’s Summit North, which featured 6-2 sisters Aaliyah and Aiyana Johnson. But she said St. Joseph’s isn’t as multidimensional as the Broncos, who could also get outside baskets from the Johnsons of sophomore guard Anija Frazier.

“Hopefully we can focus on doubling down and doing those things that we do against North, pressing and trying to speed the game up a little bit,” Crawford said. “St. Joseph’s has some shooters, but they don’t have a Frazier. It’s tough when you have someone that athletic to prepare for besides the (Johnson) sisters.”

Lee’s Summit will counter St. Joseph’s size with guards that can shoot from outside or drive to the basket. Claire Lock, a 5-8 junior, is the Tigers’ leading scorer at 14.1 points per game. Paige Elston, a 5-6 senior, is averaging 11.6. But the strong suit during their postseason run has been an active defense that has surrendered just over 42 points a game.

“They’re not gambling as much on defense,” Crawford said. “I think what hurt us early in the season is that we are athletic, so we tend to gamble a little too much, go for the steal and that kind of puts us out of position. We’ve really focused on ‘just play solid, don’t gamble.’

Lee’s Summit is making its first girls state tournament appearance since 2005, when Danielle Adams led the Tigers to a second-place finish before going off to win an NCAA women’s championship at Texas A&M and play in the WNBA. It’s also a first for Crawford, although she took a team to state while coaching in Oklahoma and won a title in high school at Spring Hill Kan. So the big spotlight and bright atmosphere of state will still be rather new to them.

But they still feel like they belong.

“I think the girls are really excited and enjoying it,” Crawford said, “and I think we have nothing to lose.”

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