By Mike Bruu, TSB Sports Editor
GARLAND – If you chose a winner based on the “eye test,” there would not be a debate on which basketball team you’d choose.
For Dallas Kimball, three players in the starting lineup are 6-feet-6-inches or bigger, including senior Keith Frazier, selected as a McDonald’s All-American in early February. On the other side of the court stood the McKinney North Bulldogs, whose tallest player is junior Kody Wilson, standing at 6 feet 3.
To experts and the common observer, the UIL Region II Boys Regional Semifinal game between the Bulldogs (23-12) and the Knights, two-time defending 4A state champs, shouldn’t have even been close.
But fortunately for the hundreds of fans inside Garland’s Curtis Culwell Center on Friday night, it was almost one of the biggest upsets of the decade.
Despite never taking the lead and trailing No. 8 Dallas Kimball by as many as 17 points in the first half, the Bulldogs cut the Knights’ lead to as small as two points in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately for the blue and orange faithful, the comeback effort came up short as North’s playoff run came to a close, losing 56-49.
Kimball will face Arlington Seguin in the Regional Final on Saturday afternoon.
“We were undersized and outmanned, and we certainly don’t pass the eye test, but I told the guys in the locker room they can’t judge what’s inside a man’s body, and we have great heart on this team,” said North head coach Darryll Craft. “I am just proud of our kids.”
Sporting their all orange uniforms for the first time in the playoffs, the Bulldogs took the court against a much bigger Knights squad. It didn’t take long for Kimball to get on the board, as Frazier hit a deep three-pointer just 45 seconds in, giving the Bulldogs student section a look and some words as he raced back down the court.
The rest of the first quarter would not be kind to North, as Kimball rolled out to a 18-4 lead as the final buzzer sounded in the arena. To cap it off, the Knights’ Tren Brinkley threw down a resounding dunk at the buzzer, the final blow in a series of punches felt by the Bulldog players early on.
“I didn’t think we did a great job of figuring out how we wanted to play in the first quarter,” said Craft. “Kody gets in a little bit of foul trouble, which hurt us with what we wanted to do rotation wise.”
After a long three by Gabe Lilly extended the Kimball lead to 17, it appeared as though the Knights would coast to victory. But with four points by Bryson Brown and three points from Colin Curran, Jola Otubu and Julion Pearre, the Bulldogs outscored the Knights 13-10 in the second quarter to trail 28-17 at the break.
Despite giving up considerable size on the glass, Wilson and Pearre continued to get rebounding opportunities for the Bulldogs, especially in the third quarter. After both teams traded baskets to start the frame, a Curran three-pointer cut the Kimball lead to 30-22 with four minutes left. Frazier quickly followed with a three of his own, but the field goal would be the final one made by the Knights in almost six minutes of play, as the Bulldogs would finish the third quarter on a 8-1 run to cut the lead to just four points.
Wilson, who finished with 12 points on the night, made six straight points during the run. The Bulldogs had a chance to cut the lead even more as they held the ball for the final shot with 45 seconds to go, but similarly to the end of the second quarter when they turned the ball over holding for the final shot, North again fumbled an opportunity to cut the Kimball lead to one score.
With the North crowd at a fever pitch and the Kimball faithful in apparent disbelief that the 17-point lead had all but disappeared, the players took the court to start the fourth quarter with Kimball up 34-30. With 6:49 to go, Pearre hit two free throws for the Bulldogs to cut the lead to 34-32, but the momentum quickly turned as a D’Angelo Allen layup, a steal, and a Brinkley dunk forced Craft to call timeout with 6:04 remaining with his team down by six.
Pearre, who finished with a team-high 13 points, sank a long three to make it 38-35 with 5:35 to go. After forcing one of Kimball’s 17 turnovers, Curran attempted a three-pointer that would have tied the game at 38-all with five minutes to go. However, the ball rimmed around and out, which proved to be the proper metaphor for the Bulldogs’ night.
After both teams traded baskets to make the score 43-39 with 2:40 remaining, a long three-pointer by Allen extended the Kimball lead to five points. On the following possession, Pearre missed two free throws that would have cut it to a one-score game, which then forced the Bulldogs to begin sending the Knights to the free throw line.
In the first 30:20 of the game, Kimball shot just four-of-10 from the free throw line. In the final 1:40 of the game, the Knights made all 12 attempts from the charity stripe, preventing the Bulldogs from getting back to within one score.
There was some late controversy in the final minutes of the game, as double technical were handed out to Otubu and Frazier after words and minimal contact were exchanged between the two players. Frazier, a five-star recruit who finished with a game-high 15 points, was met with a resounding “Overrated!” chant from the Bulldogs cheering section, despite North trailing by five points at the time.
After the emotional loss that ended the Bulldogs’ season, Craft said the final three quarters of the game showed everyone what North basketball is all about.
“It just shows that we aren’t going to quit and we are going to keep battling tooth and nail until the final buzzer goes off. We had a chance and unfortunately we didn’t get the job done tonight,” he said.
Despite Frazier leading the way with 15 points, the senior averaged nearly 22 PPG during the season. For most of the night Pearre, who is considering scholarship offers from Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and SMU, was matched up with him defensively, and Craft said the junior guard did a fantastic job of limiting Frazier’s impact.
“We tried to do everything we could to limit Frazier’s touches,” Craft said. “Julion is a good leaper and I thought he did a pretty good job on him. You just have to tip your hat to Kimball. They are a tremendous team and are the two-time defending state champs for a reason.”
In scoring, Curran finished with eight points while Otubu had six. Junior Steele Douglas and senior Bryson Brown, who played his final game in a Bulldog uniform, both finished with four points. Sophomore Eric Ford had the final field goal of the game for North.
Brown and Nick Stensrud are the only two players graduating off the Bulldogs roster this spring, leaving four of the starting five players on Friday night coming back for their senior seasons. But for Craft, saying goodbye to a man like Brown won’t be easy for him and his teammates.
“He is the face of our program,” said Craft. “You couldn’t ask to coach a better kid and couldn’t ask for a better kid in the classroom. He leads by example and works hard.”
Even though the Bulldogs finished second in District 13-4A, many have viewed this playoff run as improbable. After blowing out Texas High in the Bi-district round, North upset No. 11 Jacksonville in the Area round and pulled out a 23-21 overtime win versus Mansfield Legacy in the Regional Quarterfinals on Tuesday night.
And despite never being the tallest or biggest team on the court, the Bulldogs were one three-pointer away from tying the two-time defending state champions with five minutes to go in the Regional Semifinals. After the game, Craft said he wants his guys to use the experience over the last couple of weeks to find a way to get the program to Austin, the annual site of the state finals.
“We told the guys in locker room after the game that our biggest distractor and opponent this season was ourselves,” said Craft. “If we can’t overcome that, there is no guarantee of what tomorrow will bring for us. We don’t have a big and since it is all about matchups, if we have to go up against a 6-foot-5-inch player we will definitely be hurting unless we make a conscious effort to get into the weight room and get stronger.
“The good thing is we know we have the talent, the skill, and the experience now. We want to get this program over the hump and get this thing to state. Next year, our goal again will be make the playoffs. If you don’t make the playoffs, you can’t advance in the tournament. We just have to put in the effort between after spring break all the way to November.”