Standing in the lobby of the Kansas Expocentre, clutching a championship trophy with Allie Koster, the feeling was a familiar one to Rhyann Fisher.
St. Thomas Aquinas had just knocked off two-time defending champion Leavenworth, 39-38, and won the Kansas 5A girls championship on Saturday. Fisher, who had missed her entire senior season due to injury, summarized the past four years for the Saints.
“We came in as state champs,” Fisher said wrapped in a hug with Koster, “and we’re leaving as state champs.”
Aquinas, minutes earlier, withstood the full force of a Leavenworth comeback bid and survived. To its credit, Leavenworth erased a 16-point halftime deficit and tied the game with 2:17 remaining.
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But a Koster free throw, with 31 seconds left, was the only point scored after that and proved to be the difference in the game.
“Well, I did miss one of them, so it wasn’t quite the storybook ending,” said Koster, who scored a team-high 12 points. “But it still feels good.”
Leavenworth coach Jordan Mellott was stunned by how the first half played out, when Aquinas led 27-11 and Leavenworth shot 12 percent from the field.
“When we got in the locker room, everyone just kind of looked at each other and said, ‘What are we doing out there?’” Mellott said.
Leavenworth, 20-5, rallied and outscored Aquinas 17-5 in the third quarter. Leavenworth pulled even at the 2:17 mark in the fourth quarter and had four chances to take the lead, including a wide-open breakaway layup by Terrion Moore, but she could not convert. Moore finished with a game-high 20 points.
Leavenworth forced Aquinas into 18 turnovers, but the Pioneers could not overcome their 30-percent shooting.
“They went out playing with a championship mentality,” Mellott said. “I was proud of the girls for showing that, but this one definitely hurts.”
After Koster put Aquinas ahead by a point, the game was not sealed until the next possession when junior Nicole Corrigan anticipated a spin move by Aarika Lister and jarred the ball loose to Aquinas teammate Sereena Weledji.
“Every player on that team is going to try some type of spin move to get to the basket,” Corrigan said. “I knew it was going to happen, so I tried to slide over for help make sure I got all ball.”
For the Saints, which had to overcome two injuries to key players, it is their fifth state title since 2000.
“We’ve had to battle all year,” Aquinas coach Rick Hetzel said. “I think the kids were used to that. It turns out they worked just hard enough.”