Jeff Hardin likes to find challenging games for his Lee’s Summit West girls basketball team. He scheduled them even while the Titans were young and inexperienced and taking their lumps the past couple of seasons.
This season, the Titans have the experience and talent to be ranked No. 3 in Class 5 and Hardin was eager to see how they would match up against Kirkwood, the top-ranked team and defending Class 5 state champion.
Turns out, in Hardin’s view, the Titans are close, but not quite, to that level.
Kirkwood came to West onJan. 5 as part of a round-robin with Park Hill and fellow suburban St. Louis school Fort Zumwalt West and for all but the final minute the Titans held the lead before falling 45-43.
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West (8-3) rebounded the next day to throttle Fort Zumwalt West 67-32 at Park Hill, but Hardin said the real challenge came the evening before.
“Since we’ve been here, we’ve played that kind of game rather than just schedule a win,” Hardin said. “We’re good enough now that we need to start winning those. We’re better off playing a tight game against (Kirkwood) than winning big against some weaker team.”
Kirkwood (10-1) beat Lee’s Summit in last year’s Class 5 title game and has three Division-I signees on its roster.
But Lee’s Summit West, which is developing a solid inside game with 6-foot posts Ashton Campbell and Lesley Lovelace to go along with sharp-shooting guards Sydney Kemp — she led the Titans with 16 points — and Kenzie Beeler, jumped out to a 13-1 lead after holding the Pioneers to a free throw during the game’s first six minutes.
The Pioneers cut the lead to13-7 by the end of the quarter, and a three-pointer from Minnesota recruit Jayla Everett in the opening minutes of the second period pulled Kirkwood back within 13-11.
West never completely surrendered the lead until well into the fourth quarter, even as it struggled uncharacteristically from three-point range and faltered against Kirkwood’s pressure defense. The Titans pushed the lead to nine before the Pioneers clawed back within 30-27 going into the fourth quarter.
Another three from Everett, who finished with 15 points, tied the game at 30-30.
New Mexico recruit Jaidah Stewart gave Kirkwood a 40-39 lead when she made one of two free throws with 1 minute, 11 seconds left. The Titans missed three shots on their next possession and made only two of four free throws in the final minute.
Still, West wasn’t finished until Makayla Wallace, who led all scorers with 19 points, sank two free throws with 8.1 seconds left that made it a 45-41 game.
“I told them I’d rather play that game 10 times then go beat some team by 25 and not learn anything about ourselves,” Hardin said. “It’s a little bit heartbreaking, but it’s a good game. It’s why you play.”
West overcame some of that heartbreak against Fort Zumwalt West. The Titans raced out to a 13-0 lead, led by 28 points going into the fourth quarter and saw the lead reach 40 during the final minutes.
After struggling behind the arc and at the line versus Kirkwood, West got eight three-pointers from five different players and made 15 of 19 free throws. Marissa Ritchey had a game-high 15 points, Kemp scored 13 and Beeler made three three-pointers for nine points.
“They just came out real businesslike,” Hardin said. “It may have been our most well-rounded game. We just played very well. We would have been successful against most teams, I think.”
Of course, Fort Zumwalt West (4-8) is no Kirkwood, but Hardin believes his team is closer than it has been to being at that level. The Titans now have to learn how to close the deal.
“We’ve shown we’re good,” Hardin said. “We’ve shown we’ve belong. Now, we’ve got to take advantage of those opportunities and win those games.”