Missouri girls hoops state preview: Lee's Summit North seized on early potential

03/19/2014 12:43 PM

03/19/2014 12:43 PM

The Lee’s Summit North High School girls basketball team (23-5) will meet Eureka (26-2) in the Missouri Class 5 state tournament semifinals at 3:30 p.m. Thursday at Mizzou Arena in Columbia. Here are five things to watch as the Broncos head to Columbia.

1. Can the Broncos make good on early-season promise?

Lee’s Summit North felt it had a formidable team in 2012 when it entered the district tournament with only three losses, but the Broncos failed to reach the state sectional round. Two years later, coach Tricia Lillygren once again saw the potential in her team to make a postseason run.

This time, she didn’t hide it.

Lillygren gathered her players for a post-practice meeting only two weeks into the preseason and told them she thought they were capable of playing for a state championship.

“They were pumped up,” she said. “They were feeling good about that. We were trying to find any way we could to motivate them.”

2. How will Eureka defend Imani Johnson?

It’s no secret that Lee’s Summit North runs its offense through senior Imani Johnson, a post player who has shown the ability to step out onto the perimeter and knock down shots.

Unsurprisingly, Johnson has keyed the Broncos’ offense during its postseason surge, capped by a 20-point performance in the state quarterfinals against North Kansas City. Needless to say, Johnson poses matchup problems for opponents.

“She’s always had really good instincts for the game with the way she sees the floor and reads defenses,” Lillygren said. “She’s really widened her game this season as far as her perimeter game. She can hit the three. She can handle the ball much better than she used to. She plays better perimeter defense. And most of all, she’s been there in tight games, so she has a calming factor now.”

If Eureka attempts something creative with its defense — or even a box-and-one approach — the Broncos’ supporting cast will need to shoulder more of the offensive load, a task Jaden Powell has shown she’s willing to do.

3. A return to defense

Lee’s Summit North has had very few problems offensively, but one notable defensive lapse kick-started their season.

Only three days after defeating Liberty in the third-place game of the Truman Invitational, the Broncos traveled to Liberty and were routed 54-39 on Jan. 27.

Lee’s Summit North has held all but one opponent below that number over the ensuing 13 games. The Broncos are 12-1 during that span.

“We preach defense every day — that’s the No. 1 way we’re going to win a ballgame,” Lillygren said. “We specifically worked on closing out (shooters), trying to stop the drive and playing team defense. That’s just fundamental in our league.”

4. Deer in headlights?

Lee’s Summit North last won the girls state championship in 2002. Even then, Lillygren said her team had a “deer in headlights” reaction in the first quarter of its opening game.

No player on the current roster has played in the state tournament final four, adding a question mark to Thursday’s semifinal.

“I have no idea how they will react. I have no idea,” Lillygren said. “We’re hoping the games at the Independence Events Center might help out a little bit. It’s not near as big of an arena, but it still has the same feel. That was the first time we played there, and I thought we handled that very well. Maybe we can just keep our eyes on the basketball court.”

5. Trap game

To reach the state quarterfinals, Lee’s Summit North defeated a team (Truman) it lost to twice during the regular season. Three days later, it earned a five-point victory against a streaking North Kansas City team.

With the state championship game scheduled for Saturday, the Broncos will need to avoid the dreaded trap game Thursday.

Defending state-champion Columbia Rock Bridge (25-3) will play St. Joseph’s Academy of St. Louis (16-14) in the other Class 5 semifinal in a rematch of last season’s state final.

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