By Mike Bruu, TSB Sports Editor
As the McKinney North Bulldogs went through the final drill of their Wednesday practice, one would hardly call the atmosphere stiff or uptight.
While the varsity players worked on blocking out in preparation for their Area round matchup versus Jacksonville on Friday night, there was a pleasant mix of hard work and calmness to the practice, as if the guys forgot they were preparing for the biggest game of the season.
“It’s a long season,” said North head coach Darryll Craft. “We have been doing this since August and playing games since November, and I think you have to scale it back a bit to ensure that you get maximum effort on Friday.”
The Bulldogs (21-11) will need maximum effort come Friday night, as they will travel to Emory Rains High School to take on the District 16-4A champion Jacksonville Indians (33-1). The Indians topped Lancaster 63-62 in overtime on Tuesday night.
“I think they are going to full court press us, but that is nothing we haven’t already seen. Our biggest fear is their post players,” said Craft. “We have to be physical, block out, and handle the pressure in order to win.”
While Craft said their athleticism reminds him of Greenville, Jacksonville will present a new challenge with its size inside.
“I don’t think we have faced an inside presence that can go to the glass and is as athletic as this team is,” he said.
North has had a crazy ride to get to the Area round of the playoffs. After starting off the season 8-7 following a district-opening loss at Lovejoy, the Bulldogs would win 13 of their next 17 games, including Monday’s playoff victory over Texarkana Texas High. According to Craft, the wins have come from the players trusting in each other and becoming more confident in sharing the basketball.
“We are sharing the ball so much better than we were earlier in the year, and I just think we are trusting our teammates to where we are going to make the right decisions with the ball,” said Craft. “Now I think they believe that if they pass the ball and their teammate doesn’t have a great look, they trust that they could get the ball back and take a shot if it is there. We have stressed it over the last couple of weeks to share the basketball, and when you do it proves you have belief in your teammates to make the right play.”
After going through the first half of district with a 6-1 record, the Bulldogs were looking up at only the Lovejoy Leopards, who were sitting atop District 13-4A at 7-0. The two teams were set to meet at North on Jan. 22, but one of the most important pieces for the Bulldogs would not be in uniform for the game, as junior Julion Pearre injured his ankle the week before versus Royse City and was ruled out for the game.
Lovejoy would top the Bulldogs 42-25, all but eliminating their chances of winning the 13-4A title. The bad luck would continue for North, as just three days later the Bulldogs lost 54-49 at Wylie, despite playing what Craft called “one of their best games of the season.”
After a pair of losses that could have put the season in a tailspin, Craft said that he and his players had to do a little soul searching to figure out how to get their goals accomplished. With Pearre out for another week, the Bulldogs needed to get back to playing their style of basketball, and get back to enjoying the sport.
For the final five district games they did just that, as North finished with a 11-3 mark in 13-4A and earned the No. 2 seed. Fortunately for the Bulldogs, Pearre was able to get back to playing in the Denison game, and has played more and more minutes each contest. While he is not 100 percent healthy, Craft said his presence on the court gives his team multiple advantages.
“No. 1, he gives you an extra body that you can play,” Craft said, “whether that is off the bench or in the starting lineup. And overall he can do just about everything for us. He can handle the ball, make good decisions, defend the best player on the team, rebound, score, so he just gives us a guy who can do everything you ask for in a player. When you have a guy like that back on your team, it can only make you better.”
On the surface Craft said his players don’t pass the eye test. Whether it is the lack of size or just how relaxed they appear, he said even the Texas High coach told him after the game on Monday that he didn’t think the Bulldogs passed the eye test. But as only sports can, the Bulldog players have taken on that identity and rolled with it, embracing their role as the underdog and the team that is a little bit hard to read.
“They are just so squirrely and I am the exact opposite,” said Craft. “I am tense and uptight about everything, and these kids are just loose and down to earth. They trust their skills and believe in themselves and the coaching staff, and I just think they are happy with what they are doing.”
But above anything else, it is apparent that the players enjoy playing with one another and competing on the court every night.
“My teammates are like brothers to me,” said junior Colin Curran. “We just bond really well off the court and it just carries over on the court.”
“We are family,” said Pearre.
With just one day to go until the game versus Jacksonville, Pearre said the expectations for his team is limitless.
“We have a road that isn’t as tough as we used to have, so I think we have a legitimate chance to make it to the regional tournament in Garland.
“Maybe even win state.”