PERRY—Everything went North’s way in the first half of its Division I district semifinal against Western Reserve Conference rival Chardon at Perry High School on Monday.
The Rangers built a 25-5 halftime then held off the Hilltoppers in the final 16 minutes to win, 50-41.
“Obviously, starting in the first half the way we did, holding a team to five points this time of year, was an impressive defensive effort,” said North coach Paul Force. “Credit them, their coaching staff, their players, we knew they’d make adjustments coming out, make a run. We told the girls that at halftime, you know, they’re not going to go away losing by 25-30 points. They made their run. I was proud of how our girls responded to it.”
With the win, the Rangers, who improved to 21-3 and won their 10th game in a row for the second time this season, advanced to their first district championship game since 2002.
“It’s quite humbling; it’s an honor,” Force said. “These guys have earned it. They haven’t snuck up on anybody all year. People have known what North’s capable of and I’m just proud of them to have that opportunity. We’ll have to get back to work tomorrow.”
Chardon’s Grace Bradley, who finished with a team-high 14 points, scored the first basket of the game and Tori Butala’s 3-pointer moments later gave the Hilltoppers an early 5-4 lead.
Destiny Leo hit back-to-back 3-pointers and Samantha Pirosko also scored six points in the first quarter to give the Rangers a 12-5 lead after the first eight minutes of play.
The Rangers outscored the Hilltoppers in the second quarter, 13-0.
“Give North credit, they came out ready to play and we came out a little flat,” said Chardon coach Cullen Harris. “Our shots didn’t fall and they capitalized on some of our mistakes.”
Chardon outscored the Rangers in the third, 11-10, then used a pair of fourth quarter scoring runs to cut North’s lead to just eight points.
Bradley’s 3-pointer with 3:05 left to play pulled the Hilltoppers to within 40-35.
“We were down 25 at one point and I tell my kids, ‘The only thing I ever ask of you is that you play as hard as you can every possession,’” Harris said. “We were 2-of-27 from the floor in the first half. Our shots didn’t fall and we dug ourselves a big hole. The easy thing to do would have been to roll over and quit.”
Halle Landies scored all 12 of her points in the second half and also wreaked havoc on North’s ball handlers. She finished with seven of Chardon’s 16 steals before fouling out late in the contest.
“She’s a tough kid,” Harris said. “She’s not the biggest kid, she’s’ not the strongest kid, but she’s not afraid to stick her nose in and work hard. When she fouled out I kind of told her, I said, ‘Remember this feeling because as a sophomore you have the opportunity to lead teams back here for the next two years.’ She’s a tremendous athlete and the sky is really the limit for her and I’m excited for what the future brings for our program.”
With the Hilltoppers closing in on the Rangers, North turned to Leo, a sophomore who was born the same year the Rangers last played in a district final, to handle Chardon’s defensive pressure and sink crucial free throws down the stretch.
She responded with 11 of her game-high 22 points in the fourth quarter and she converted on 5-of-6 fourth quarter free throw tries.
“I don’t think her age or year in school matters,” Force said. “She’s beyond her years as a basketball player. We trust her with every possession. We trust her with the basketball in her hands to make the right decision, to knock down the big shot, to knock down the free throws. She was born to play basketball.”
Pirosko, who committed to continue her education and playing career at Gannon University, contributed to the win with 16 points. Anaunda Lyons finished with five and Sammi Valaitis and Caitlin Stuart both pitched in with three points.
Pirosko also pulled down 21 of North’s 40 rebounds.
“I think this kind of a game gives us a little better experience than if we had ran away with it in the second half,” Force said. “Obviously, I would have liked to run away with it in the second half, but we didn’t do that. This kind of a game is what you need in late February and going into early March. I think the girls can build on this.”
The Rangers will play another familiar foe in Thursday’s district championship game as Kenston topped Geneva, 54-44, in Monday’s nightcap at Perry. North beat the Bombers twice during their march to the WRC title this season.
“The game should be fun to watch,” Force said. “It will be a matter of who shows up and makes plays. At the end of the day, it’s a bunch of teenage girls running around out there with the ball. Whoever makes more plays at the end of the day is going to move on.”
Chardon closed out the year with a 14-11 record after starting the season 2-6.
The Hilltoppers won 12 of their final 17 games.
“I told them when you get older and you have kids, and I’m having a child of my own here shortly, I promised them, there will be at a minimum five times the first three months where you say, ‘I can’t do this, this is impossible,’ and they’ll look back at times like this where they’re like, ‘Yes, I can,’ and that’s what I’m just really proud of. I’m proud of my kids and proud of the effort they give.”