INDEPENDENCE, Mo. — Just one win away from program history with a familiar and beatable opponent in the way, Park Hill’s dream season came to a nightmare finish.
The Trojans fought back from a double-digit deficit to take a brief lead in a Class 5 quarterfinal Saturday, March 11 at Silverstein Eye Centers Arena. Lee’s Summit punched right back, hitting a slew of free throws late to seal a 57-53 victory that earned the Tigers a spot in the state semifinals.
Finishing 21-7, Park Hill already earned a second district title in three years and won a playoff game for the first time in more than two decades to reach to the quarters. The Trojans were unable to go back to state for the first time since a 24-7 run to a Class 4A runner-up showing in 1995.
“This season was more than a success; it was a joy ride,” Park Hill coach Aaron Neeser said. “These kids, we’ve asked everything of them, and they gave everything they had. That’s why I love them. They’ll be part of our family forever.”
Park Hill won a pair of Suburban Conference Gold Division matchups between the two teams this season — both in close finishes, one in overtime.
Lee’s Summit moved above .500 for the first time since early February with a sectional win but only reached the playoffs after Belton upset previously unbeaten Lee’s Summit North in their district. Yet, the Tigers were seemingly in control when Neeser took a timeout down 40-29 with 2 minutes, 36 seconds left in the third quarter.
That’s when Park Hill’s accomplished seniors, including starters Morgen Smith, Alex Berger and Gigi Hopkins plus key reserve Jenna Winebrenner, helped forge a rally.
Winebrenner grabbed a steal and a layup, and Smith converted a three-point play to trim Park Hill’s deficit to 42-36. Berger then hit a 3 from the left wing — first of the game for the Trojans — with 4 seconds left in the third quarter.
Lee’s Summit led by just four entering the fourth quarter.
“They didn’t want the season to end,” Park Hill coach Aaron Neeser said. “They gave it all they’ve got. They care. That’s what they’ve done the last four years, done everything we’ve asked of them.”
Lee’s Summit didn’t score for the first 5 minutes of the fourth quarter, but Park Hill couldn’t take full advantage.
Hopkins missed a pair of free throws, and Trojans junior guard Taiya Shelby split another pair to pull them within one possession. Lee’s Summit forward Claire Lock even fouled out with 11 points, but the Tigers didn’t relinquish the lead until Winebrenner’s second field goal — an inside basket — followed with a layup off a turnover for sophomore guard Tee Tee Bryant.
Lee’s Summit took a timeout with 3:12 left in regulation, suddenly trailing 44-43 after a 15-3 run that occurred over a span of 8 minutes.
Lee’s Summit hit back with a 6-0 run, and Hopkins’ putback of a Berger missed 3-point attempt provided the final sign of life for Park Hill. Hopkins drew a foul on the play and converted the free throw to make it 49-47 with 44 seconds left.
Forced to foul, Park Hill could only watch as Lee’s Summit made eight straight free throws in a parade to the line. The final two came with 2.7 seconds left, and in a bizarre finish, Shelby banked in a 3-pointer from 35 feet at the buzzer while Lee’s Summit started its celebration.
“We worked so hard to get the lead that I think when we had the lead we kind of panicked,” Neeser said. “We kind of needed to pull back, and I think we got caught up in the moment.”
While the seniors were the heart of this year’s team, Bryant carried Park Hill through an increasingly difficult first half.
The reserve guard provided six points in the first quarter and set up a transition layup for Shelby, which she converted while drawing a foul. The free throw pushed the Trojans’ early lead to 14-7, but the trouble started when Smith, the Trojans’ 6-2 senior forward and lone inside presence, picked up her second foul.
With Smith on the bench for almost all of the second quarter, Lee’s Summit feasted on second-chance opportunities along with three 3-pointers from Randi Johnson.
Bryant, who finished the first half with 15 of her 19 points, converted a three-point play to open the second quarter to make it 19-12. Lee’s Summit responded with an 11-2 run that expanded to 16-4, and the Tigers were up 32-27 at halftime only after Bryant converted a driving layup with time running down in the first half.
“We knew going into this game that rebounding was going to be one of the key points,” Neeser said, “and they did a number on us on the boards in the second quarter.”
Park Hill scored just two points in the next 5:24, and despite the late push from Berger (seven points), Hopkins (six points) and Smith (six points), the Trojans couldn’t sustain the comeback effort.
The team-wide struggles were uncharacteristic for a team that won 20 games for the first time since the program-best 1995 season. Park Hill had won seven straight, including a sectional win over Liberty to avenge a 2015 sectional loss to the Blue Jays, and ended the season with three total wins over teams qualified for the Class 5 semifinals.
In addition to beating Lee’s Summit twice, Park Hill also upset Kirkwood earlier in the season.