INDEPENDENCE, Mo. — Players and coaches can now stake a claim to being part of one of the best teams in Park Hill history. They don’t want that designation to be the end of their story.
The 58-43 Class 5 sectional win over Liberty on Wednesday, March 8 at Silverstein Eye Centers Arena marked the first playoff victory for the Trojans since 1995. The senior class also gained a measure of revenge, having been a part of the 2015 team that lost to the Blue Jays in the same round.
Park Hill advances to the state quarterfinals for the first time since going in back to back years in 1994 and 1995, the latter ending with a state runner-up showing in Class 4A.
“We know that winning this game wasn’t our end goal,” Park Hill senior Morgen Smith said after the win over Liberty. “We have bigger goals, and we just don’t want to be satisfied.”
Smith, Alex Berger, Gigi Hopkins and Jenna Winebrenner — four of Park Hill’s six seniors — combined for 42 of the Trojans’ 58 points.
Berger (game-high 19 points) hit a pair of early 3s and combined with Hopkins to provide the steady scoring needed in the third quarter after Liberty twice closed within two points. Park Hill never trailed, pulling away late after Smith scored inside buckets on back-to-back possessions early in the fourth quarter.
All four played a pivotal role with a shortened bench to illness and injury.
“Seniors stepped up, made plays when we needed them to,” Park Hill coach Aaron Neeser said. “They showed a lot of guts. Just real impressed with their moxie, their want-to.”
Berger hit a 3-pointer on Park Hill’s opening possession and added her second to open the scoring in the second quarter. The second started an 8-2 run that ended up being the final points for the Trojans before halftime.
Liberty hit a pair of 3s late and closed within 20-18 at the break.
Hopkins broke Park Hill’s lengthy scoring drought with a putback basket 1 ½ minutes into the third quarter, but Liberty hit another 3 to close within 27-25. Berger answered with her third and final 3, and the Trojans started to pull away from there.
Winebrenner scored a transition layup — her lone basket — off of a quick steal and outlet pass from Hopkins. Tee Tee Bryant, a sophomore guard who finished with eight points then added another breakaway layup to cap an 11-2 run that put the Trojans ahead 38-27 entering the fourth quarter.
"We talked about weathering the storm and keeping on the grind and keep doing what we do,” Winebrenner said.
Hopkins scored eight of her 11 points in the decisive third quarter, and Smith emerged in the fourth quarter after a rough start to help Park Hill’s lead balloon to 19.
Limited to four points through three quarters, Smith scored on back-to-back possessions, putting back junior point guard Ali Walls’ missed layup and drawing a foul on the second. After Smith converted the three-point play, Berger followed with a breakaway layup to put Liberty down 50-31 with 4:59 left.
In addition to the seniors, Bryant and junior Taiya Shelby (eight points) completed a balanced offense that scored 38 points in the second half.
“That’s what’s great about our team, and I think that’s why we’re having some of the success we are,” Smiths said. “If one person is off, we have four other people who can pick up the scoring. There’s always an opportunity for us.”
Neeser cleared his bench of just five players late with Liberty unable to draw back within single digits.
Park Hill (21-6) finished off a seventh straight win with the first playoff victory since a quarterfinal win more than two decades earlier. After achieving another goal on the list, the Trojans’ focus shifts to a third matchup of the season with Lee’s Summit (14-13) at 7:45 p.m. on Saturday, March 11 back at Silverstein Eye Centers Arena.
In both Suburban Conference Gold Division matchups, Park Hill prevailed in close matchups. The Trojans won by two at Lee's Summit and then survived to win by three in overtime in the rematch at home.
After previously unbeaten Lee’s Summit North suffered an upset loss in a District 13 semifinal, Park Hill might have developed into the favorite to make a state run not seen from the program since 1995 with the players and coaches believing they can match or better the previous best team in school history.
“I’m just really excited for this team,” Neeser said. “We’ve really grown. We’ve really come together. They really appreciate each other. They respect each other. They just have the confidence that we want to do it.”