TOPEKA In a semifinal game that had championship intensity, St. Thomas Aquinas held off Leavenworth 47-38 Friday evening in the Kansas Class 5A girls state basketball tournament at the Kansas Expocentre.
And for the second year in a row, Aquinas beat Leavenworth in the state tournament. Last year, the Saints pulled out a 39-38 victory over Leavenworth in the title game. The Pioneers were going for their third straight state championship.
This time around, Aquinas (21-3) will try to repeat and win its third title in five years when it takes on Maize, 21-3, at 4 p.m. Saturday.
“We worked together and played hard,” said Aquinas sophomore Alayna Townsell, who finished with 16 points. We were focused, and we had great determination because we want to get a state championship.”
The Saints never trailed in the second half, but Leavenworth forced them to make championship plays.
Early in the third quarter, when Leavenworth closed to 24-20, Townsell stepped outside and hit a three-pointer. A minute later, she powered inside and was fouled. She made both free throws to push the Saints’ lead to 29-20.
“It was really big because we couldn’t let them get the momentum,” Townsell said.
In the opening minutes of the fourth quarter, Leavenworth closed to 36-33, and that was when the Saints found junior forward Allison Thomas in the paint for a basket.
All game, Townsell and Thomas were tough to guard for Leavenworth. They combined for 29 points.
“They both stepped up huge tonight,” said Aquinas coach Rick Hetzel. “It was fun to see them dig down and work that hard.”
Perhaps the play that turned into the dagger for the Pioneers came when Leavenworth trailed 38-35. Aquinas junior Sereena Weledji passed the ball inside to sophomore Blythe Pearson, who scored and was fouled. She made the free throw, giving the Saints a 41-35 lead. Leavenworth never got closer than four points the rest of the game.
In the first half, the post play of Townsell and Thomas gave Aquinas a 24-18 halftime lead.
Townsell was particularly difficult to guard. Besides scoring in the paint, she floated outside and knocked down two three-pointers.
The first couple of minutes was a seesaw battle with the lead changing four times. Aquinas went ahead for good at 7-5 on two free throws by Thomas. The Saints carried a 16-11 lead into the second quarter.
Aquinas continued to build on its lead, pushing ahead 24-12 before the Pioneers made a late charge and scored the final six points in the quarter. Junior Aarika Lister kept Leavenworth close by scoring 11 points in the first half.
Lister finished with 16 points in the game.