By Joe Gisondi

Most mornings, coach Dave Johnson enjoys listening to pop music on his drive to Lake Land.

You might even catch him singing along to 1980s pop music or, yes, Katy Perry.

“Always got to listen to Katy Perry,” Johnson said.

But early Saturday morning, he turned the music off, instead replaying game film in his mind.

Johnson remained silent through the morning after he arrived at the Field House, thinking about ways to help his girls, the ones whose dreams had been ripped away a year earlier when COVID forced the NJCAA to cancel a national women’s basketball tournament in which Lake Land was a favorite to win. He wanted to make sure that his players had a second chance.

“I would say that I felt tremendous pressure to get them back,” Johnson said. “From Day One. They’re great kids. They work hard. They’re extremely coachable.”

And they blew past North Central Missouri from the opening tipoff Saturday for an 80-50 victory that earned the Lakers another trip to the NJCAA Division II tourney, which has been moved to Hickory, North Carolina.

“I knew they were ready today,” Johnson said. “You could see it in the meeting this morning.”

He might also have heard it in the rumble of stomachs. Several players could not bear to eat during the team breakfast.

Like sophomore Abby Weis, who finally grabbed a Lunchable at a gas station right before the team’s pregame workout, forcing down two small pieces of turkey and two tiny crackers – a few hours before hitting four key 3-pointers in a four-minute stretch that helped Lake Land take a 28-10 first quarter lead that it slowly built upon.

“She can never eat,” said teammate Shania Schoonover.

Lake Land’s Abby Weis embraces teammate Olivia Niemerg in the waning moments of the Laker’s 80-50 win over North Central Missouri. (Photo/Chet Piotrowski)

Weis hit a 3-pointer from the right corner to make it 10-4 with 5:35 left in the first quarter. About a minute later, she hit two more in a row, near the top of the key and from the left side, that capped a 13-0 run that made it 18-4. She hit another from the left side that floated in at 1:34 to make it 26-7.

“The whole locker room was nervous,” Weis said. “We knew it was going to be a good game, no matter what. Everybody was like, ‘We’ve worked hard for this.’ And, pretty much, pedal to the metal, everybody came out and played well.”

Schoonover, averaging 6.5 points this season, contributed in a more visible way than usual. While Johnson called the sophomore “our secret weapon” for her ability to do what coaches often refer to as the little things – diving for balls, handling the ball well, defending taller players – Schoonover scored 10 total points, including three baskets in the opening 75 seconds of the second quarter that extended Lake Land’s lead to 37-12.

“I just try to play some good D,” Schoonover said, “block out, and, if I’m there with an opportunity to score, I’m there. Really, I’m just trying to get those assists to the good shooters, and we’ve got a ton of those.”

By the time Tresoir Newson hit two free throws with a few seconds left in the second quarter to make it 50-21, the game was essentially over.

North Central College went on an 11-3 run to begin the second half, but Lake Land countered by scoring seven points in a row on a 3-pointer from the left side by Elizabeth Buescher, a driving layup from Kamaria Gant and two free throws by Newson. Even though North Central Missouri scored more points in the third quarter than the entire first half, the game was never in question afterward.

“We knew Lake Land was a fantastic ball club, but we probably did not expect them to shoot lights out like they did to start the game,” North Central Missouri coach Jenni Croy said. “So kudos to them because they executed offensively very well. And we didn’t. We didn’t handle the pressure very well.”

Lake Land had only scored 31 first-half points in Friday’s semifinal, likely because the team had not played a game during the previous 15 days.

Johnson said two factors helped his team Saturday – that his team had played multiple back-to-back games during an abbreviated season and that his older, experienced squad can handle stress.

“Part of that is being sophomore-loaded,” he said. “Even though they were nervous, they knew how to compartmentalize that and use it as energy.”

Weis, who says she plays better when she is a bit tense, agrees.

“You expect so much out of yourself and you have those nerves of true adrenaline,” she said. “So as soon as the tipoff comes, you’re ready to go.”

Weis scored 15 points, two fewer than Newson, who led the team with 17 and snared five steals. Harley Barry posted a team-high seven assists.

“We were saying to one another that we worked so hard last year and we never got a chance to go to nationals,” Weis said. “This year was a statement for us that we deserved it.”

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LAKE LAND (80): Niemerg 2 2-4 8, Barry 2 5-6 9, Gant 3 5-6 12, Newson 6 5-5 17, Weiss 5 1-1 15, Schoonover 5 0-0 10, Buescher 2 0-0 6, Still 2 1-2 3. Totals 26 19-24 80. 3-pointers – Weis 4, Niemerg 2, Buescher 2, Gant 1. Assists – Barry 7, Weis 4. Rebounds – Barry 5, Weis 4. Steals – Newson 5.