After falling just short of a title in back-to-back years, the Lutheran High North Lady Lions’ third straight trip to the state tournament was exactly the charm they needed to capture the championship trophy that eluded them the previous two seasons following their 59-45 victory over Lubbock’s Trinity Christian School Lions at McMurry University in Abilene.
“We were so tired of being the bridesmaids,” said head coach John Slomcheck, referring to the team’s prior inability to win it all.
The Lady Lions entered Saturday’s matchup versus Trinity riding an 18-game winning streak, but they received their biggest challenge during the last game of that span when they faced off against Marble Fall’s Faith Academy Flames. Lutheran was able to grab the win despite playing most of the first half without their dominant post player, junior Alyce Fields, who would have provided the Lady Lions with a strong interior presence both on offense and defense, especially against a much-smaller Faith team.
“I kind of felt bad because I wasn’t playing, and I know that when I’m not in, our offense is kind of stagnant,” she said. “It’s non-existent.”
Even though LHN was missing one of their key cogs on the court, the Lady Lions were still able to keep the game close going into halftime, as they trailed 29-27 at the break.
At intermission, the Lady Lions did something that was out of character for the team, according to Slomcheck.
“You guys probably don’t remember this,” he said, looking at his players as they sat in the Lutheran conference room following the trip to Abilene, “but we were down by two against Faith Academy, and y’all were like chewing each other out.” He then proceeded to do an impression of his team, “‘I’ve got so-and-so, you’ve got soand-so.’”
Slomcheck said he told his team to relax because although they didn’t play that first half without Fields, they were only down two and she would be back in the game barring any more fouls.
“I knew when I got back in I couldn’t foul, cause if I wouldn’t have been in, it would’ve been really hard,” Fields said. “That’s why when I got back in, I was like this the whole time,” holding her hands straight up in the air.
The Lady Lions were able to go on a 34-21 run in the final two frames with Fields in the lineup to seal the victory and send the team to state for the second time in three years.
The Lady Lions made the 370-mile trip to McMurry with the thought that they would have few fans behind them since it was a school day back at Lutheran, and because there would be an inevitable divide with the boys’ playoff soccer game back home.
However, when LHN suited up to play Saturday, they were shocked at how loud the gym was and immediately felt the overwhelming sense of encouragement.
“We had half the number of fans,” senior Amber Reyes said. “But they were just as loud.”
In addition to support in the stadium, Lutheran was able to broadcast the game back home in the school’s courtyard for the fans who couldn’t make the trek to Abilene.
“My daughter came to watch it, and she said it was loud in there too,” Slomcheck said.
He relayed the message back to his team and although they couldn’t technically hear the crowd in Houston, it still filled them with warmth.
“That was the thing, just knowing that they weren’t there physically at the game, we knew they were watching, so we still felt the support,” senior Sable Barnes said.
The Lady Lions also got a boost from some of the host university’s students who had a single connection to LHN.
“My brother’s friend, who used to go (to Lutheran), goes to McMurry and plays football there,” said senior Rebecca Wood. “So a bunch of his friends came and cheered us on.”
Apparently the newly-adopted LHN fans were so loud that it became difficult for the players to communicate on the court.
“We were screaming at each other just to hear each other, and everyone on the bench was like, ‘y’all it’s OK, we’ve got this,’ and I was like, ‘y’all we’re just trying to talk,’” said Fields, laughing as she reminisced about the instance.
A familiar setting
Wood and Reyes knew going into the match against Trinity that nothing would come easy, especially after having played in the 2015 state championship game that saw the Lady Lions combust in the second half opposite a Lubbock Christian School that they considered inferior.
Despite a 19-6 run in the second quarter versus Trinity to break the game wide open, the two seniors felt the need to push even harder because the memories of the 2015 state championship still haunted them.
“I remember in (the 2015 state championship) game we were up by 15, and already in my head, I was like, ‘we’ve got this,’” Wood said. “I was already thinking about my Instagram caption for my picture. We were killing this team, they weren’t even good, and then we lost, and I was so mad.”
LHN came out firing in the third quarter, once again outscoring the Lions from Lubbock by a 15-9 margin to put the lead at 19 entering the final period.
Then it happened.
Trinity began fouling the Lady Lions any time they had the ball to start the fourth quarter and continued to do so throughout the frame because LHN started struggling from the charity stripe, and glimpses from the past began to creep in.
“I was worried because when we lost two years ago we all thought that we had it when we were playing,” Reyes said.
As LHN combatted with their sudden vulnerability at the free-throw line, Trinity began to crawl back in the game as the Lady Lions tried to remain calm.
“Any time Amber and I would go back to half court when they were shooting free throws, every single time I’d look at her and go, ‘we have to win this,’” Wood said. “‘We are not losing.’”
“It’s ok, we’ve got this”
Trinity was able to close the gap to six after changing their game plan in the fourth, but that was as close as they would get to overcoming LHN’s lead because the Lady Lions adjusted their own strategy midway through the quarter.
“If you think about it, the faster you throw it away – if you keep passing it, they can’t foul you,” Wood said.
Which is exactly what they did to consume the remaining time on the clock, as they tried to prolong their offensive possessions by playing a game of hot potato.
As the timer neared two minutes, Slomcheck turned to Kendra Benson, the school’s director of admissions who was helping during the game, and asked her to text Dana Gerard, the head of school, to tell him, “it’s OK, we’ve got this.”
Because of the way that Trinity was fouling them and with their new approach, the Lady Lions did not shoot a single field goal in the final quarter, but managed to ice the game from the free-throw line despite knocking down only 14-of-29 from the stripe to secure the first state championship in the basketball program’s history and the first school title since 2004.
The road ahead
The Lady Lions graduate four seniors, including captains Barnes, Wood and Reyes, but return two of their best players in Fields and fellow junior Cydney Rivera, who are also likely to be selected as allstate players.
“Next year we’re going to be right back there, because we have talent coming in,” Slomcheck said. “We have a great staff and we have talent remaining.”
Either way, the expectations remain high for a team that has accomplished so much in Slomcheck’s six-year tenure as head coach.
“It’s unfortunate in a way, because if you’re at Lutheran High North basketball, your goal is state,” he said. “A good season isn’t we went 12-10. Our goal is to go to state. That’s a lot of pressure.”