By Mike Bruu, TSB Sports Editor
EMORY – This was not a game for the faint of heart.
In front of a rowdy standing-room only crowd at Emory Rains High School, the McKinney North Bulldogs upset the state’s No. 11-ranked Jacksonville Fightin’ Indians 55-45 in the UIL Class 4A Region II Area Round game on Friday night. The loss was just Jacksonville’s second of the season.
North will face Mansfield Legacy on Monday or Tuesday in the Regional Quarterfinal. Game time and location will be determined this weekend. Mansfield Legacy beat Sherman 68-43 on Friday night in the Area Round.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs (22-11) trailed for just a little over four minutes in their game against Jacksonville, grabbing an early first-quarter lead and holding on the rest of the way. After leading by as many as 13 in the first half, Jacksonville (33-2) got back in the game to start the second half after scoring the first eight points of the third quarter.
“I told them there were going to be some runs in the game, so I told them at halftime that when they do, to not get excited and don’t lose your composure,” said North head coach Darryll Craft.
North saw its lead cut to as little as three in the third quarter, as the Fightin’ Indians outscored the Bulldogs 12-5 in the frame. It was the only quarter the Bulldogs were outscored in the game.
As the Bulldogs took a 30-26 lead into the final eight minutes of the game, little did the crowd on hand realize that they were about to witness the “Julion Pearre Show.” Scoring just four points in the first three quarters combined, the 6-foot-3-inch junior scored the Bulldogs first 11 points of the quarter that included two three-pointers and three free throws. Pearre would finish with 16 points in the quarter, making eight of his nine possible free throw attempts to ice the game for North and send them into the Regional Quarterfinals.
“Throughout the whole game, the coaches kept telling us that we had to box out, be physical and handle that pressure,” said Pearre after the game. “In the second half, I helped keep my team in it, but luckily in the fourth quarter they were able to find me and I could help us pull through with a win.”
“How about Julion?,” said Craft. “They make a three-pointer, and then he comes down and hits a three. They make a shot then he comes down and makes a shot. They make another shot then he comes down, gets fouled, and makes two free throws. Just a heck of a job by him tonight.”
Jacksonville did not go down easy in the final quarter, closing the gap to as little as five points with more than four minutes to play. However, the Fightin’ Indians strategy of sending North to the free throw line backfired, as the sharp-shooting Bulldogs shot 88 percent from the charity stripe in the final quarter.
During the three days of preparation leading up to Friday night, Craft said the game plan was to “be physical, handle the pressure, and block out defensively.” With the play on the court and the outcome of the game, one could say the game plan worked to perfection.
“Coach put a great game plan together,” said Pearre. “We went over it in practice multiple times and we were just able to execute it tonight. They weren’t the greatest shooters, but we were able to slow them down and stop them from driving.”
“It did work,” said Craft. “We got a little impatient because we wanted to get a steal, so we would jump out there at times in the fourth quarter. But for the first three quarters I thought the plan worked to perfection.”
Craft said he told his players that they all needed to answer two questions with positive answers after the game in order to ensure a victory: Did we handle the pressure, and did we block out?
“I would give us a ‘B’ to ‘B-minus’ in terms of handling pressure, and I would give us a ‘A’ to ‘A-minus’ for rebounding,” said Craft. “I thought we did an outstanding job at rebounding in the final three minutes of the game.”
The Bulldogs ruffled up the offensive tempo of the Fightin’ Indians in the first half, limiting the District 16-4A champions to just 14 points. Instead of extending their zone all the way to the perimeter, the Bulldog defense stayed soft and inside, tempting the Jacksonville shooters to take jump shots and not allow them to drive to the basket. However, Craft knew that in order to play this way he had to have guys block out defensively, which he worked extensively during the week with his players on.
“We had to commit five guys in the paint in order to get rebounds, and I thought our kids executed what we wanted them to the entire game,” said Craft.
While Pearre stole the show in the fourth quarter, Craft said all eight of his players in the rotation contributed in a positive way tonight. He said juniors Jola Otubu, Steele Douglas, and Colin Curran all did a good job at ball handling despite the Jacksonville pressure, even mentioning the Otubu was “exhausted” after the game.
Curran finished with nine points while senior Bryson Brown had eight points. Douglas, Otubu, and Kody Wilson all had six points.
Craft also highlighted juniors Michael Caldwell and Wilson for their contributions on the court. Despite playing eight minutes in the rotation, Craft said Caldwell’s playing time were “viable minutes,” and said the Wilson’s ability to play physical in the middle of the paint was key on both ends of the court for the Bulldogs.
Unlike some of the bigger gyms that North is accustomed to playing in, the gym at Emory Rains High School was smaller and more compact. It did create quite a playoff atmosphere though, as both sides made plenty of noise whenever their side made a big play on offense or defense.
After the game, Pearre said he wants every playoff game to have that kind of environment to it.
“It is great with your adrenaline going crazy. It is fun man. Nothing can describe it. I would love to play in this environment again next Tuesday.”
Craft said the gym compared to a lot of the ones he used to find in his home state of Ohio.
“I am from Ohio, so this is what I am used to because our gyms aren’t as nice and big as they are in Texas,” he said. “It is a smaller gym but the atmosphere with a standing room only crowd, it was as loud as it could be. People get on to me all the time that I am so loud and yell so much, but when you have an atmosphere like this you better be able to yell loud because you can’t communicate any other way.”
Now it’s on to the Regional Quarterfinals. Legacy finished second in District 15-4A, but Craft said it is the team’s victory over a district rival that shows him how good the Broncos is.
“I know they beat Arlington Seguin, so that is all I need to know,” said Craft. “They are great defensively and aren’t going to give you a lot. We will have our hands full, but I think Mansfield Legacy will have its hands full as well if we play the way we are capable of playing.”