FARMINGTON – North County had every opportunity to crack under the pressure against the more experienced top seed Farmington on Friday night.
Erratic free-throw shooting and 12 second-half turnovers factored directly into a squandered lead, but the Lady Raiders never strayed from their ultimate game plan.
Sophomore Kayleigh Winch compiled 25 points and 13 rebounds inside, and North County captured its first Class 4, District 2 championship in three years with a 51-48 victory.
Julia Christopher added 10 points with five assists, and the Lady Raiders (18-11) advanced to the state sectional round where Dexter awaits on Tuesday at the Farmington Civic Center.
“They did such a phenomenal job tonight,” North County coach Zac McVey stated about his players. “Every girl, I thought, exceeded what her role is for the team and made some clutch baskets,”
North County trailed for all of 14 seconds when junior Macey Pauls alertly stole that ball back after it was stripped from her, and scored for a 40-39 Farmington edge with 6:02 to play.
Winch used an excellent ball fake moments later, and attacked for a go-ahead layup while netting the next eight points for the third-seeded Lady Raiders.
“I just know that we had to work together as a team,” Winch said. “Our guards are very good at handling the ball. They make sure to look when I’m open, and they can definitely shoot when I’m not.”
Farmington (16-11) faced a 47-42 deficit after Winch scored on an interior feed from Ella Gant, and lost two crucial possessions when dribbles were fumbled out of bounds.
But a meager 13-of-30 performance at the line by North County left the door open for a late comeback. Senior center Zoe Johns scored on two straight trips to make it 48-46.
The Knights looked for a tying shot after Winch split two free throws to restore a 50-48 cushion. But the initial lob for Johns was tipped, and a baseline floater from Alyson Tucker danced off the rim.
Gant made 1-of-2 from the stripe with 7.4 seconds left, and Farmington called timeout in the frontcourt to design a final play. But a skip pass fell short of its intended target, and time expired as the ball stayed loose in a desperate scramble.
North County was on the losing end of the last two district finals while occupying the top line on the bracket. An open 3-pointer in the closing seconds spelled defeat last season.
“I wasn’t nervous because we were in that exact same position last year against Potosi,” McVey said. “We called a timeout and told them ‘Here we are again. The same scenario. Let’s make sure we execute.’ I probably said it 10 times – no fouls, no threes.”
Johns tallied 10 of her 14 points in the fourth quarter, and grabbed seven rebounds while forward Claire Busse added 11 points for Farmington, which made 3-of-7 free throws.
While post production was fairly even, North County achieved a major feat by often preventing speedy guards Tucker and Pauls from often breaking free in transition.
The exception occurred on a layup ahead of the pack by Pauls that brought Farmington within 25-22 at halftime, plus a steal and score by Tucker to begin the third quarter.
“It was nerve-racking,” North County junior guard Alyssa Huber said. “We had to stay calm the entire time and not throw the ball away.”
Christopher provided three baskets over the next six minutes, and Michaela Mason sank a key jumper as the Lady Raiders protected their narrow lead.
Winch powered to the basket at 35-31 while answering a 3-pointer by Emily Greif, but the Knights would soon draw even at 38-38 when Busse drilled a pull-up jumper in the fourth quarter.
Solid entry passing from the baseline helped North County produce quality shots against the taller post players during the early moments.
An opening 10-2 run was restored on a putback from Winch at 12-4, and her subsequent 3-point play on a feed by Christopher created the largest separation of the night at 19-9.
“We started faster that I actually thought we were going to,” McVey said. “Farmington is good enough to go on those runs, and they did, but we did just enough to persevere.”
Second-chance field goals by Pauls and Johns rallied Farmington to within 23-18, but Gant responded with a nifty runner off the glass.
Pauls finished with eight points before fouling out in the final seconds, and Greif chipped in seven for Farmington. Tucker dished out four assists.
North County claimed two of the three head-to-head meetings this season. Each contest was decided by four points or less.