CANTON—North coach Paul Force needed a moment.
Moments after Abby Carter swiped a Solon inbound pass to put an end to the Rangers’ 64-63 come from behind win over the Comets in a Division I regional semifinal at Canton’s Memorial Civic Center, Force crouched stoically amid the chaos of his assistant coaches and players frantically celebrating their first regional win in 25 years.
Krystal Force, the assistant coach and wife of Paul, couldn’t restrain herself as she did her best impression of a pogo stick, hopping up and down and pumping her firsts—10 times according to the video floating around social media.
Paul Force’s reaction was understandable considering the emotional tug-of-war he went through as the Rangers trailed 11-0 in the first two minutes of the game and 17-2 later in the first quarter.
“You know, I just try to stop and take a couple breaths and take in those kinds of moments,” Force said. “To me, it’s about the girls and their excitement and the support from the people that support, love and care about these girls. I just needed a moment to listen to and feel all of that. I know it’s important to enjoy the journey.”
The Comets opened the game firing on all cylinders.
They drained seven 3-pointers in the first quarter as they scored the first 11 points of the game and built a 29-14 lead.
“They came out guns blazing,” Force said of the Comets. “They’ve been here a long time and I think that showed early. They weren’t intimidated by the atmosphere; they made some shots and forced us to adjust our defensive game plan. One thing we talk about all the time is no roller coasters, emotionally. At this point in the season you’re going to play teams that make shots and they make runs and they run good plays and we expected that.”
Down 14-2, Force called a time out to regroup and reassure his players they were right where they needed to be.
“I said, ‘I love this, that’s why we’re here, to embrace that challenge,’” Force said. “It’s four quarters for a reason. I’m extremely proud of them.”
Destiny Leo scored 10 of her 19 points and Maddy Hamilton added a 3-pointer in the opening quarter to keep the Rangers from being completely overwhelmed.
North played the Comets even in the second but trailed 38-23 at halftime.
Taylor Valaitis opened the third quarter with a pair of 3-pointers to cut North’s deficit to single digits and the Rangers seized on that momentum to pull to within 49-44 heading into the final eight minutes of play.
“Coming out of the locker room, we were hoping to get it into single digits in the third quarter and Taylor took care of that in the first 60 seconds,” Force said. “She stepped up and made big shots. (She’s a) senior point guard and she’s won I think 46 out of 51 games that she’s started at point guard for us. She’s a winner. She embraces this stuff.”
Valaitis ended the third quarter with 11 of her 13 points and Carter added eight of her team-high 21 in the period.
Carter carried that momentum into the fourth quarter where she scored nine points, which included a big 3-pointer that pulled North to within 52-49 but her biggest moments were yet to come.
Avril Drew, who scored all eight of her points in the fourth quarter, added a layup to cut the Solon lead to 52-51, the Comets responded with a 6-0 run but again the Rangers bounced back and scored nine of the next 11 points to make it a one-possession game with 2:01 remaining.
Carter recorded a steal and fed Drew for another layup and Leo followed another Solon turnover with an and-one to give the Rangers their first lead of the game at 62-60 with 1:00 left.
A Solon 3-pointer left the Rangers down a point with 40 seconds remaining in regulation.
Leo began a drive to the hoop but attracted three Comets so she dished it off to Carter, who was fouled on her way into the paint with 16.6 seconds left.
She hit both free throws then made the defensive play of the game on the other end to seal North’s win.
“Game-changer on the offensive and defensive end,” Force said of Carter. “We figured they would key on Destiny a little bit as everybody kind of does. When that happens it opens up opportunities for other girls and Abby had it going on the outside, had it going on the inside, a lot of emotion. More important than Abby’s stats is the energy level she plays with.”
The Rangers advanced to Friday’s regional championship game against Canton GlenOak, a 61-32 winner over Aurora in the other semifinal.
While North is flying sky high after its comeback victory over Solon, the Rangers won’t take anything for granted and they’ll approach this game the same way they have their previous 26.
“I just think every game to us is big,” Force said. “Every game is the Super Bowl. We prepare the same way, we talk about the same stuff, same keys. It’s just a different jersey on the other side.”
North 64, Solon 63
North (25-1): Carter 21, Hamilton 3, Leo 1, Drew 8, Valaitis 13
Solon (21-5): M. Ali 10, R. Ali 12, Weaver 23, McQueen 7, Leskovic 1, Rinicella 9
North 14 9 21 20 — 64
Solon 29 9 11 14 — 63
Free throws: North 11 of 13, Solon 5 of 8; 3-pointers: North 9 (Valaitis 3, Carter 3, Leo 2, Hamilton), Solon 11 (Weaver 5, Rinicella 3, R. Ali 2, McQueen); Rebounds: North 26 (Carter 8), Solon 35 (Weaver 11); Assists: North 11 (Carter 6), Solon 12 (Weaver 6)