Four years in the making.
That is how long Leavenworth’s Rashayla Mathis dreamt of playing for a state championship.
“For three years, I never had this chance,” the LV senior guard said, “so it really means a lot to me for us to be here.”
On Wednesday, at 2:15 in the afternoon, that wish became a reality when the Lady Pioneer basketball team trotted out under the bright lights of the Topeka Expocentre.
In less than 40 minutes, the team would take on No. 1 seeded St. Thomas Aquinas in the opening contest of the Class 5A state championship tournament.
Three hours later, Mathis and her Leavenworth teammates walked off that same hardwood floor. Their mood was different — sullen, filled with disappointment and exhaustion. Tears filled most eyes.
But that will happen after losing a 54-47, double-overtime thriller to end one’s season.
Yet, the final result did not define this year’s Lady Pioneers, who made the state tournament for the first time since 2003.
No, this moment was about the past six months of blood, sweat and pain that the team suffered to even be at this point.
And so, under the chants of “LV” from loyal fans, Mathis walked off just like the rest of her teammates — proudly.
“Being a senior, I am just glad I got the opportunity to play here,” Mathis said. “That was the goal all season, that we could get here, and so though it hurts right now, I’m very proud of our team.”
The game itself began sloppy and cold. Leavenworth’s defense wrecked havoc on Aquinas, yet the Lady Pioneers couldn’t find the key to unlock its own offense.
Mathis hit the game’s first basket, a layup down the middle of the paint. She then sank two free throws at 4:12 to give Leavenworth a 4-0 advantage.
The rest of the quarter followed suit, ending with a 6-3 LV lead.
To start the second, the tread continued thanks in large part to missed free throws by the Saints – the No. 1 seed shot just 2-for-9 in the half.
Midway through the second, the contest final broke from its slumber, when the Saints’ full-court pressure enduced back-to-back buckets.
Tyler Johnson answered for Leavenworth, and the two teams traded baskets until halftime, where the score sat 16-16.
“We obviously came out a little tight,” LV coach Derek Zeck said. “We got a lot of little looks that we missed, but to be where we were at the end of the first half after several missed opportunities, I felt pretty comfortable.”
Page 2 of 3 - Both teams left the break with determination to go inside. Like prizefighters, they traded blows as each drove the ball to the rim.
It was Aquinas that took the most advantage, drawing fouls and finally converting free throws.
That recipe put the Saints up 29-25 heading into the final period.
“It was a slugfest,” Zeck said. “I thought it was a great coaching battle both ways. Obviously, he did a better job down the stretch.”
With the game’s intensity level already high, it entered a new stratosphere in the fourth. Aquinas built up a six-point lead, its largest of the game, two minutes in. Despite that deficit, LV began crawling back.
First, Johnson hit a layup. A stop later, Tashia Jones added another. Over the next four minutes, Leavenworth replied every Aquinas basket with one of its own until the 2:39 mark.
At that moment, Jones snatched a Mathis missed free throw and banked-in the rebound to give LV a one-point lead — its first since the second quarter.
It was short lived, though, as Aquinas responded. Two minutes later, with 5 seconds left in regulation, Mathis charged to the basket for the would-be game winner.
However, she was stripped with 2.1 seconds left and the contest went into overtime, tied at 36.
“I wanted her to shoot, but they obviously made a great defensive play,” the LV coach said. “In the first overtime, I should’ve let her do that again instead of calling a time out. You make decisions and it’s hard not to second guess.”
Leavenworth struck first blood in the opening extra period thanks to Johnson free throws. But that meant little as the Saints responded.
The game followed that same path up until the final 20 seconds.
There, Johnson made yet another layup and free throw, giving the Lady Pioneers a 41-39 edge. Moments from the upset victory, Leavenworth allowed an Aquinas offensive rebound, which led to an equalizer that bounced on the rim three times before falling in.
So, for the second time, LV had the final crack at victory. And for the second time, the team couldn’t get a shot off. After a set-play went awry, an inbounds play failed to come to fruition and the game headed to a second OT.
“We just couldn’t get a shot off,” Mathis said.
This time, Aquinas scored first and never looked back.
The No. 1 seed converted four free throws to start the quarter and though the Lady Pioneers tried to hang around, the Saints continued to make its freebies down the stretch.
Page 3 of 3 - Aquinas hit 20-of-28 free throws in the second half and extra periods to walk away with the eight-point win.
“It was a battle back and forth and whoever made the final mistake was going to lose the game,” Zeck said, “and we just made one too many. They wore us down and that is a credit to them.”
Johnson finished with 20 points to lead Leavenworth while Mathis contributed 14 points, Jones six and Alicia Brown four. Emily Blackburn added three.
The Lady Pioneers finished the season 14-9.
“We probably shocked some people with the talent we have and how good we are to take the No. 1 team into double overtime,” Zeck said. “I think we put pride back into the LV program.”