Second-Half Defense Helps City High Rally Past Johnston to Reach 5A Title Game


Jeff Yoder Photo /

Ryan Murken

Your Prep Sports

DES MOINES – Ashley Joens has sparkled on offense this season leading the state in scoring on the highest scoring team in Class 5A.

It was the work on the defensive end by Joens and her City High teammates that sent the Little Hawks to the state championship game.

Top-ranked City High limited No. 4 Johnston (21-4) to four third-quarter points while erasing a halftime deficit and held on for a 58-52 win in a 5A state semifinal on Thursday at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. 

Joens had seven steals helping top-ranked City High (25-0) force 23 turnovers while advancing to the state title game for the first time since 2008.

“They were knocking down shots so for us to be able to stop them we had to step it up and play on defense how we can play,” Joens said. “This whole month has really been about defense and we just wanted to be able to come out and play as much defense as well as we could.”

Joens scored 22 points and grabbed nine rebounds and Rose Nkumu added 13 points as City High advanced to take on ninth-ranked West High (18-7) in an all-Iowa City 5A title game on Friday at 6 p.m.

“It feels amazing,” Nkumu said. “We all put in the work over the summer and this whole season and we said we didn’t come this far to only come this far.”  


It was far from a thing of beauty on offense for a City High team that scored 78 points in a quarterfinal win over West Des Moines Valley and entered averaging 77.5 per game. 

City High committed 19 turnovers of its own, went more than eight minutes without a point during the first half and shot 41 percent from the field while producing its second lowest scoring output of the season.

The difference for the Little Hawks was defense.

City High held Johnston scoreless for more than six minutes during a 14-0 third-quarter run that gave City High a 44-32 lead.

“We turned it up on defense and that was really the difference,” Nkumu said. “At the locker room at halftime coach said we have 16 minutes to play so we needed to go out and play every single second like it’s the last.”

City High jumped to a 12-4 lead less than three minutes into the game on a steal and layup by Joens.

Johnston responded, scoring 17 unanswered points over the next eight minutes and took its biggest lead of the game at 21-12 on a Regan Nesheim layup with 6:02 left in the first half.

City High closed the first half with five unanswered points to trail 30-28 at intermission.

“Give credit to Johnston we lost a little focus and they hit some shots, they shot extremely well almost 55 percent in the first half but we finished the half o.k.,” City High coach Bill McTaggart said. “I told them with how we played with 11 turnovers the first half to only be down two I like our chances.”

City High burst out of the second half gates, outscoring Johnston 16-4 in the third quarter to turn a two-point halftime deficit into a 10-point cushion.

The Little Hawks held the Dragons to 2-of-8 shooting in the third quarter and Nkumu and freshman Ella Cook each hit 3-pointers to jump start the 14-0 City High run.

“We were really just trying to double off of Ashley and they had a couple of kids step up and hit threes and we said we will live with those,” Johnston coach Chad Jilek said. “They stepped up and hit a couple threes but we did a pretty good job on Ashley.”

Facing constant double teams every time she touched the ball Joens had a string of four consecutive 30-point games end but still put up a game-high 24 points on 8-of-12 shooting.

In two games Joens has already set the Class 5A state tournament scoring record with 60 points.

The 6-foot Joens hit all six of her free throw attempts, including a pair with 1:17 left that broke a 49-all tie and gave City High a lead it would never give up.

“They gave us their best shot and we came ready to go,” Joens said. “We put on our best towards the end and really came out and played how we were capable of playing.”

City High made 9-of-10 free throws in the final 77 seconds to secure the win.

Jennah Johnson had 19 points and Nesheim had 17 points for Johnston as City High limited sophomore point guard Maya McDermott to nine points on 4-of-10 shooting.

McDermott entered averaging a team-high 19.4 points per game.

“Our focus was to take out McDermott the best we could,” McTaggart said. “We knew she was going to get her points but if we could slow her down we liked our chances.”

Paige Rocca had seven points including a pair of clutch free throws late while Aubrey Joens and Ella Cook each had five four the Little Hawks.

“It feels really good,” Aubrey Joens said. “When we came here last year we didn’t do what we wanted to so it’s a really good feeling to get this far.”

City High         12  13  16  14  –  58

Johnston         17  13   4   18  –  52

City High (58) – Rose Nkumu 3-14 4-9 13, Ashley Joens 8-12 6-6 24, Paige Rocca 1-6 4-4 7, Aubrey Joens 2-3 0-0 5, Samantha Greving 2-6 0-0 4, Ayana Lindsey 0-0 0-0 0, Ella Cook 2-3 0-0 5, Team 18-44 14-19 58.

Johnston (52) – Maya McDermott 4-10 0-0 9, Macy Thompson 1-2 0-0 2, Jennah Johnson 6-13 6-8 19, Maddie Mock 1-5 0-0 3, Regan Nesheim 7-8 3-4 17, Kendall Nead 1-2 0-0 2, Team 20-40 9-12 52.

3-point field goals – ICH 8-19 (R. Nkumu 3-9, Ash. Joens 2-4, Rocca 1-4, Aub. Joens 1-1, Cook 1-1); JOH 3-9 (McDermott 1-3, Johnson 1-4, Mock 1-2). Rebounds – ICH 24 (Ash. Joens 9); JOH 24 (Mock 9). Assists – ICH 8 (Nkumu); JOH 12 (Johnson 5). Turnovers – ICH 19; JOH 23. Total fouls – ICH 18; JOH 14. Fouled out – JOH (Mock). Technical fouls – None.