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Iowa high school girls basketball state tournament: Johnston finishes season undefeated with 5A title

The Dragons' defense was dominant in the 48-36 victory
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DES MOINES, IOWA – Johnston used tenacious defense to claim its second girls state basketball championship in three years Friday night with a 48-36 win over West Des Moines Dowling. 

The Dragons, ranked No. 1 all season in SB Live’s all-class top 25 and ranked 19th in the national rankings, played like a team on a mission after being upset in last year’s state title game by Pleasant Valley.


“We thought we were the best team in the state of Iowa last year,” said Johnston head coach Chad Jilek. “Pleasant Valley came out took it to us, and the girls took it to heart -- like we can't just come out with the talent and just beat everybody. You gotta come together as a team and work together, and that's what they were focused on all summer.”

Sophomore Jenica Lewis and Iowa State signee Aili Tanke were selected to the all-tournament team with Lewis selected as captain. Lewis buried five 3-pointers and finished with 20 points and had three steals, while Tanke posted her second double-double of the tournament with 15 points and 13 rebounds.

Dowling’s Ava Zeiker finished with a game high 25 points, but she had to earn every bucket as Johnston harassed her with in-your-face, man-to-man defense and sent waves of double teams.

The first half was a struggle for the Creighton recruit as she had five turnovers and only six points – mostly coming off being double-teamed and not being able to find an open teammate.

“I knew they were gonna make it tough on me,” said Zediker, who was also selected to the all-tournament team. “They did something similar when we played them in the regular season too, so I knew it was coming “

Lewis said they weren’t going to let Zediker beat them.

“We wanted to double team Ava,” she said. “No disrespect to Ellie Olson -- she's an amazing player, but we just took our advantages of her not being the greatest shooter and just started double-teaming, and I think we got Ava’s head a little bit.”

Dowling, the third seed in the tournament field, actually got off to a good start, scoring the first five points of the game, the Dragons turned up the defense and gained a 13-9 lead after the first quarter.

Zediker scored the first basket of the second quarter at the 6:36 mark, but that was it as Johnston turned up the defense even more in the second quarter when the Dragons ripped off 12 consecutive points to take a commanding 25-11 lead at halftime. Lewis bombed in back-to-back 3s to get the run started.

The Dragons’ defense was the story of the first half, forcing eight turnovers that resulted in a 10-2 advantage in points off turnovers. They also held Dowling to 21.1 percent shooting in the first half and 11.1 percent on 1 of 9 shooting in the first quarter.

Dowling, ranked second in SB Live’s all-class top 25, really struggled getting good shots off within the 35-second shot clock due to Johnston’s harassing defense.

“We were focused, and we told the kids one of the biggest keys was you gotta play defense. Your defensive effort has to be the best it's ever been,” said Jilek, who has coached Johnston to state 10 consecutive seasons, winning three of the last six titles. “In that first half we were focused on getting the ball out of Zediker’s hands. We got her in some traps, and they didn't do a good job of reacting to that.” 

Dowling, which starts all three juniors, a sophomore and a freshman, didn’t fold though like many young teams would. It trimmed the deficit to 34-22 after three quarters and managed to close within seven when Zediker knocked down a step-back 3-pointer from the left wing, forcing Jilek to call timeout with 7:04 left.

That was the closest the Maroons could get as Lewis answered with her own step-back 3-pointer from the baseline, and Johnston led by at least eight the rest of the game.

“The first half was a struggle, and we knew we had to step it up at half time,” Zediker said. “This is not the way we're supposed to play and the way we wanted to play, but we showed a little fight in the third quarter.”

The Maroons made nine of their 19 shots (percent) in the second half.

“It came down to that one quarter,” said coach Kristin Meyer, who guided Dowling teams to its fourth straight state tournament appearance and seventh under her tutelage. “I think defensively we did OK. We just couldn't score in the second quarter. We missed a few shots, had a few turnovers and if you have one bad quarter against a high-level team like Johnston it's hard to dig yourself out of that hole.

“But if we hit three more threes, it’s a different ball game.”

This Dragons became the first team to go undefeated (26-0) twice in a three-year span, and the discussion now transitions to their place amongst the greatest teams in Iowa 5-player history. With Tanke inked to ISU, center Amani Jenkins committed to Marquette and a top 25-50 player in the nation in Lewis, they are certainly in the discussion with great teams like the legendary Des Moines East squads under coach Sam Powell.

“You can look at this team now with all this talent and say they’d be in the conversation for one of the best teams ever in the state of Iowa with what they've done.” Jilek said. “It's not easy to do. You go through a 5A schedule in the CIML, and you know you win all your games. That's a gauntlet for these kids to do that every single night, and I'm so proud of them.”

“I think they are the best team that I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” said Meyer, who came to Dowling after winning a title at Nevada in 2015.

Meanwhile the Maroons finish the season with a 21-6 record and have a lot to look forward to in the future, graduating just one senior on the entire roster.

“We've got all five starters back so you know this will make us excited to get to the championship but hungry to be hoisting that state championship trophy,” Meyer said. “I think we'll have a lot of fire in the offseason to take that next step.”

All-Tournament Team

Aili Tanke, Johnston
Ellie Mueller, Dowling Catholic
Grace Knutson, Cedar Falls
Divine Bourrage, Davenport North
Ava Zediker, Dowling Catholic|
Jenica Lewis, Johnston (Captain)

--Chris Short | @SBLiveIA