By Mike Bruu, TSB Sports Editor
It was primed to be an exciting Tuesday night of basketball at McKinney North High School.
In both the boys and girls standings, North and the visiting Lovejoy Leopards currently stood at Nos. 1 and 2 in District 13-4A, with the Lady Bulldogs controlling the girls side and the Leopards sitting undefeated on the boys side.
For the Lady Bulldogs, a 55-45 clinched a playoff berth and left Wylie on Friday night as the last true “test” for the team with four games remaining before the postseason began. It was also the team’s 18th straight victory, with its last loss coming on Nov. 29 versus Frisco Liberty in the MISD Invitational. The Lady Bulldogs improved to 10-0 in 13-4A and 25-3 overall
For the Bulldogs, however, a 42-25 loss meant they failed to even up the season series with Lovejoy and failed to create a tie at the top of the standings. The Bulldogs dropped to 6-2 in 13-4A and 14-10 overall.
The North girls were the first to take the court, and their defense ruled the night. Lovejoy finished with 30 turnovers on the night, with 11 coming in the first quarter. The Lady Bulldogs were struggling to turn those turnovers into points, however, as they did not record a field goal until the 4:43 mark in the first quarter when Amy Kleynhans hit a lay-up to give North a 4-3 lead.
With a sharpshooter like Alexis Mason, named the previous day as the Dallas Morning News Player of the Week, perhaps the most surprising stat of the night showed that the Lady Bulldogs recorded just one three-pointer in the first half of the game. It happened when Mason hit an outside three with 4:15 remaining in the second quarter. In fact, if you take away her three-pointer and the four Chanterria Jackson free throws, 20 of the Lady Bulldogs’ 27 first half points were scored inside the paint.
After the game, North girls head coach Michael Oldham said that Lovejoy’s zone really dictated the importance of getting the ball inside.
“We were seeing a lot of zone, so we ran a couple of plays to get the ball down into the paint,” said Oldham. “We were getting the shots we wanted to get tonight, it was just that added length that changed our shots a bit.”
The Lady Bulldogs took a 27-14 lead into halftime, led by Jackson’s 10 points and Mason’s 11. Jackson would finish with a game-high 25 points while Mason record 19. “She had the night,” said Oldham regarding Jackson’s performance.
While Lovejoy climbed to within eight points on several possessions, North was able to do just enough on both ends of the court to hold off the Lady Leopards and seal an important home win.
“We need to win some ugly games like that because they aren’t all going to be pretty,” said Oldham about his team’s performance. “It is something about the matchups with them. They are much more physical than most teams we play, they are big and athletic, and have more length than most other teams.”
This was win No. 18 in a row for Oldham and the Lady Bulldogs, a feat that has gone a bit under the radar in the local media. While there has always been that coaching adage that breaking a long winning streak before the playoffs is actually better for a team than continuing to win and build the pressure, Oldham said he hopes this hot streak takes North all the way to Austin for the state finals.
“I was talking to one of my coaching mentors last night and we were talking about it, and he asked me if I would want to take a loss at this point right now or not,” Oldham said. “I just think at this point we need to keep winning, because right now I don’t think a loss would teach us anything. If we lose, it is going to be because of what happened out there tonight.
“So right now I just want to stay on this winning streak until Austin.”
North will visit Wylie (7-3) on Friday night, beginning at 6:30 p.m.
In game two of the doubleheader, the Lovejoy Leopards used an advantage in size and physicality to rough up the Bulldogs and take a firm grip on the District 13-4A championship race.
“They are a very good defensive team,” said North boys head coach Darryll Craft, following his team’s loss. “It is hard for us to score against somebody like that because of the fact that they are going to keep us on the perimeter.
With junior Julion Pearre out with an ankle injury after hurting it in last Friday’s win versus Royse City, the Bulldogs were without a key starter who averaged 11.1 points per game in district play facing arguably the best team in 13-4A. Instead of playing a prototypical up-and-down basketball game with the Leopards, Craft devised a game plan to keep the ball away from Lovejoy by using a minute and a half to two whole minutes before taking a shot, much to the chagrin of the Lovejoy faithful.
The plan appeared to work in the first quarter as North trailed just 8-5 after the frame despite not scoring its first field goal until the 5:35 mark. However, Lovejoy quickly forced the Bulldogs to change plans in the second quarter as the Leopards streaked out to a 10-0 run in the frame to make it 18-5 with four minute remaining, with seven points coming from senior Jake Flaggert. The Bulldogs would muster just seven points in the quarter, led by Kody Wilson’s four points, to trail 23-12 with one half remaining.
After the half, Craft and his players came out with a faster pace and hurried up the tempo on offense, trying to find some way to penetrate the feisty Lovejoy zone. The Bulldogs found some success on the offensive side, with Maliek Golden scoring all four of his points in the quarter as well as a three-pointer from Jola Otubu, who finished with a team-high seven points. After outscoring Lovejoy 11-10 in the third quarter, the Bulldogs were down 33-23 entering the final eight minutes of the game with a chance to pull off a miraculous comeback.
Whatever high hopes the Bulldogs had going into the fourth quarter died early on in the frame, as the Leopards completely dominated on both ends of the court in the final eight minutes and came within two Michael Caldwell free throws with 42 seconds remaining from pitching a shutout in the fourth quarter.
After the game Craft defended his game plan, saying that it is his responsibility as the head coach to put his players in the best position to win on any given night.
“Every game that we go into, it’s my job to come up with a game plan that gives our team the best chance to win,” said Craft. “They are big and when we tried to run our normal offense, we still couldn’t get into the paint so my thought process was that we could spread them out and create some gaps to penetrate.
I felt like if we could do this it would give us an opportunity to win in the fourth quarter. I thought if we played them straight up, whether that be man-to-man or zone, they were too big and physical inside for us.”
Craft also said that the decision to run the “prevent” offense had nothing to do with the loss of Pearre, but rather his desire to keep the ball away from the much bigger and more physical Lovejoy postmen.
“I don’t want to say we did this because of one certain player,” Craft said, “but when you don’t have a lot of depth at the post position to begin with and you take away a kid that helps you rebound and defends their best player, that is going to make a big difference. We didn’t do this because we thought our offense was bad. We did this because we didn’t want the ball in their offenses hands so we had to defend them.
If (Lovejoy’s) Coach Herrema promised me that they would never pound the ball inside against us, then I wouldn’t have run that offense. But since they were going to make us defend their 6-foot-4 inch kids down low, the plan was to make sure we kept the ball in our position as much so we wouldn’t have to defend those type of kids.”
Despite the district title hopes all but gone with only six games remaining, the Bulldogs are still very much alive in the playoff race and control their own destiny to secure the No. 2 seed out of 13-4A.
“The goal was to always make the playoffs,” said Craft. “Once we make the playoffs then we will see where we stand. Right now we have some soul searching to do despite our 6-2 district record. Julion is out so I know that plays into those player’s minds, so tomorrow we have to have a good day of practice and understand where we are, who we are playing, and find a way to win four or five more games in district until we get where we want to be.”
North will be on the road on Friday night as they travel to Wylie (4-4) beginning at 8 p.m.
Photos courtesy of Kellie Anfonso. For more game photos, click here.