During the middle of the fourth quarter Tuesday, Lawrence High junior center Chisom Ajekwu appeared tired. Standing in the paint, her hands rested on her hips as she waited for Topeka Hayden to set up its offense.
Tired or not, there was nobody who could stop her in the final minutes. She used her 6-foot-3 frame to reach above everyone for rebounds. She blocked a shot. On offense, she called for the ball and scored with ease.
With a dominant fourth quarter from Ajekwu — she scored the game’s final eight points — the Lions pulled away from Hayden for a 61-49 victory in their home opener. Along with four field goals in the last five minutes, Ajekwu added five rebounds.
“I feel like they wore down and she just kept coming,” Lawrence coach Jeff Dickson said of Ajekwu, who totaled 16 points, 14 rebounds, four blocks and three steals.
In the first half, Hayden did everything it could to prevent passes in the paint to Ajekwu with a 1-3-1 zone. She only had two points in the first two quarters dealing with foul trouble. That opened up shots for senior wing E’lease Stafford (16 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists) and senior guard Talima Harjo (15 points). Junior point guard Hannah Stewart added a 3-pointer and sophomore Ella Stewart hit a mid-range jumper.
After the Wildcats (0-1) took a one-point lead midway through the second quarter, their only lead of the game, Harjo responded with five straight points on the next two possessions.
Playing with more confidence, the 5-7 Harjo scored 12 points in the first half while chasing Hayden’s 6-foot junior forward Brooklyn Hunter on defense.
“I think (Harjo’s) one of the best players in the league,” Dickson said. “We saw it this summer, but since the season started, she’s really stepped up.”
In the third quarter, the Lions (2-0, ranked No. 3 in Class 6A) led by as many as nine points through transition buckets created by Ajekwu and Stafford. On a pair of plays, Ajekwu grabbed a quick rebound and threw a home-run pass to Stafford for an open layup. Other times, Stafford found Ajekwu for a layup before Hayden could set up its zone defense. Plus, senior guard Tyrin Cosey added a layup-and-the-foul score.
Each time the Lions looked on the verge of pulling away, Hayden would answer with key 3-pointers. The Wildcats made eight triples, including a pair from Hunter (18 points).
Once Hayden tried to erase another deficit in the fourth quarter, Ajekwu decided enough was enough.
She scored on three straight possessions by pinning her defender behind her. With under two minutes left, she rebounded her own missed shot twice before scoring while being fouled.
“They hit us in the mouth multiple times,” Dickson said, “and we always answered it.”
Lawrence will go on the road to play Wyandotte at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
Topeka Hayden (49)
Brooklyn Hunter 7-16 2-4 18, Jadyn Jay 0-2 0-0 0, Haley Karolevitz 5-9 0-0 13, Madison Ellis 5-13 0-0 12, Sophia Purcell 1-5 3-4 6, Kyra Bauer 0-2 0-0 0, Joelle Shurtz 0-5 0-0 0. Totals 18-52 5-8 49.
Hannah Stewart 1-5 0-0 3, Talima Harjo 6-11 1-2 15, Tyrin Cosey 2-6 0-1 5, E’lease Stafford 7-16 2-2 16, Chisom Ajekwu 8-14 0-3 16, Ella Stewart 1-3 0-1 2, Leslie Ostronic 1-1 0-0 2, Asia Goodwin 1-7 0-2 2. Totals 27-63 3-13 61.
Hayden 7 20 11 11 — 49
Lawrence 16 13 16 16 — 61
Three-point goals: Hayden 8-23 (Karolevitz 3, Hunter 2, Ellis 2, Purcell); Lawrence 4-16 (Harjo 2, Stewart, Cosey). Turnovers: Hayden 16, Lawrence 14.