LHS girls ousted by Olathe South in sub-state championship

Lawrence High player E'Lease Stafford (40) drives past Olathe South player Dani Winslow (35) during the home game on Friday, March 2, 2018. Olathe South outscored LHS, 53-47.

If Hannah Stewart’s words weren’t enough to describe her feelings, the icy stare as they escaped her mouth said it all.

Moments removed from a comeback effort fallen short that sent the Lawrence High girls’ basketball season to a premature end — the Lions (17-5) fell to Olathe South in the sub-state championship round, 53-47 — the junior guard stood outside a locker room in which plenty of tears had fallen.

Stewart, with both eyes red and her bottom lip quivering, spoke of the scene after the game. As she continued, though, she shed those emotions, replacing them with an intense demeanor perhaps to serve as a reminder to her future self.

“I feel like it’s something that will stick with us forever,” Stewart said. “And burn inside of us to strive to make it further.”

For Stewart and most of the players, they’ll get their chance. For the four seniors, though, there won’t be another shot.

The Lions, who entered sub-state play as a two-seed, struggled to ever really get comfortable on the floor until their final game was almost over. The Falcons made sure to limit their chances — as early as one minute into the game.

Ahead by two points after about 40 seconds, Olathe South’s Lauren Harder held the ball at the top of the key and froze. Some 30 seconds ticked off the clock while her teammate, Sophie Reed, clapped on the wing. LHS’ E’lease Stafford gestured for 6-foot-3 Chisom Ajekwu (four blocks) to abandon her post at the rim and guard all the way out to the perimeter.

Ajekwu took a few steps forward and it was game on — all the way down to the very last second.

“The kids battled their butts off and played hard,” said coach Jeff Dickson after the game. “I have nothing but pride and admiration for those girls and how hard they’ve worked this season.”

“I felt like everybody left it on the floor,” added Stafford.

While the Lions struggled to shoot in the early stages of the game, they managed to hang around by avoiding turnovers — they committed just three in the first half — and attacking the glass.

Things started to unravel in the third quarter, though. After Ajekwu (team-high 13 points) scored to knot the game at 23-all, the Falcons embarked on a 21-6 spurt that saw them hold a 15-point advantage seconds into the final period.

“We were struggling to kind of calm ourselves down,” Dickson said. “Finally I felt like we kind of calmed down a little bit, but that’s a pretty big hole to dig ourselves out of.”

It wasn’t for a lack of trying.

Sammy Williams hit a free throw to start an LHS run. Stafford, a 1,000-point scorer at LHS, drilled a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 10. Leslie Ostronic, who banked in a 3-pointer at the buzzer in the first quarter, hit her second 3 of the game to claw the Lions within seven.

Senior Talima Harjo (10 points) scored next to cut the deficit to five. Ajekwu scored inside to cut it to three. The 12-0 run had the home court of the Lions buzzing, but they were never able to get closer than that.

“Tonight, it just wasn’t our day,” Stafford said as a lone tear fell down her face. “It wasn’t meant to be.”

The Falcons, regulars at the state tournament over the last decade, didn’t miss a single free throw in the final minutes until it was a four-point game with less than 25 seconds remaining.

Stafford, one of the Lions’ top performers all season, was held to just 10 points, though she added three blocks and a steal. The senior fouled out of her final contest with 22.7 seconds remaining on the clock.

“They did a great job defending her,” Dickson said. “When our kids see her getting a little bit frustrated, everybody starts feeling that a little bit, but I thought she battled hard.”

Even in the loss, LHS’ four seniors each had their moments. Asia Goodwin came off the bench in the third quarter and helped quell the Olathe South run with a tough drive and score while getting fouled. Harjo also helped keep things from getting out of hand, picking off a pass in the third quarter and sprinting the length of the floor to lay it in at the other end.

Senior Tyrin Cosey was held scoreless but contributed to a defensive effort that saw the Lions force 14 turnovers, including eight in the second half, while Stafford did her part to keep sparking the team down the stretch, diving after loose balls and locking in on both ends until she fouled out.

“You’re talking about a group that when they came into high school, Lawrence High hadn’t had a winning record in five or six years and had only won like three league games over that time,” Dickson said. “They went to four straight sub-state championship games, which was one of the best runs in school history. And while it ended before we wanted it to, they still have to go down as one of the most successful classes that’s ever played at Lawrence High.”

At the very least, Stafford saw it as something that could keep the recent winning tradition alive for next year’s team. The senior class finished its last two seasons with a combined record of 35-10, going 18-6 in league play.

“It was a great journey, from where we started freshman year, not even ranked in the top 10 in the state, it really motivated us,” said Stafford. “The underclassmen, they can take that, let them feel that, put the hate in the bag so that can feel motivated for next season, next year coming up. And then they can obviously go to state and get a title.”

Olathe South (53)

Izzy Pierce 7-14 1-1 15, Sophie Reed 2-4 0-0 4, Caroline Harshbarger 0-2 2-2 2, Dani Winslow 4-9 3-4 12, Lauren Harder 0-0 0-0 0, Lydia Rhoades 2-3 0-2 5, Remy Braun 1-5 5-6 7, Avery Halliday 1-2 3-4 6, Mandy Truitt 0-1 2-2 2. Totals: 17-40 16-21 53.

Lawrence (47)

Hannah Stewart 1-5 0-0 2, Leslie Ostronic 2-5 0-0 6, Talima Harjo 4-6 1-2 10, E’Lease Stafford 2-8 5-7 10, Chisom Ajekwu 6-12 1-2 13, Sammy Williams 1-2 1-2 3, Tyrin Cosey 0-2 0-0 0, Asia Goodwin 1-2 1-1 3. Totals 17-42 9-14 47.

O-South 11 10 20 12 — 53

Lawrence 14 6 9 18 — 47

3-point goals: O-South 3-8 (Winslow, Rhoades, Halliday 1); Lawrence 4-13 (Ostronic 2, Harjo, Stafford 1). Fouled out: Stafford. Turnovers: O-South 14, Lawrence 9.