POTOSI — The Central girls basketball team took nothing for granted when meeting North County for a fourth time this season in the Class 4, District 2 championship game on Thursday night.
The Lady Rebels only had to recall the frustration and disappointment felt last year after falling to their neighboring rivals in the semifinal round.
“We came in here pretty fired up,” junior guard MacKenzie Jones said. “Our coach put the score up from last year’s game every day before practice, and it was 52-46. That motivated us.”
Central answered the strongest North County push of the night by posting a defensive shutout in the second quarter, and completed the season sweep by prevailing 49-39 as both teams battled through mistakes.
Sophomore Megan Skaggs scored 14 points, Jones compiled 13 points with five steals and the Lady Rebels claimed their second district banner in three years and eighth overall after both clubs committed 23 turnovers.
Central (26-1) advanced to the Class 4 state sectional round, and will face either Dexter or Notre Dame for a 6:30 p.m. opening tip next Wednesday at Three Rivers Community College.
“I thought we didn’t attack very well,” Central coach Josh Mapes said. “But North County plays great defense. They pressure the ball full-court, and they roll it right into pressure in the half-court. They have a bunch of kids who they run in there, and they play hard all the time.”
North County (19-7) offered its strongest challenge in four clashes with the highest prize at stake, staying within 35-31 early in the fourth quarter.
But the Lady Raiders suffered a drought of nine minutes between baskets, unable to capitalize after leading Central rebounder and shot blocker Sydney Skaggs collected her fourth foul on what looked like a clean rejection.
Olivia Casey scored from a tight baseline angle and Jones assisted senior Abby Fischbeck to extend a lead that remained in double digits after Megan Skaggs sank two free throws with 4:21 to play.
Each one of 13 North County’s field goals belonged to frontcourt players. Sophomore forward Emily Eaton netted a game-high 18 points and reserve junior Marianna Falls had 11.
Kourtney Kekec recorded a game-high seven steals along with eight points in a hustling effort that earned her a bloody nose early in the contest.
“They have three key players who we always have to keep track of. We had to stop the baseline drive and get to their shooters.” Fischbeck said. “Coach Mapes has us prepared for every detail about every team we play.”
A strange first half featured three distinct scoring runs, and the Lady Rebels jumped ahead 12-2 by applying pressure. Peyton Caldwell notched her second straight basket on an outlet pass from Jones.
The momentum shifted suddenly and decisively as North County rattled the top seed into 10 turnovers before the first quarter ended.
Three steals by Kekec created scoring plays, and Eaton made a putback as the Lady Raiders capped the stanza on a 13-0 spurt to lead 15-12.
“Sometimes in the first half, we come out a little shaky,” Fischbeck said. “It happened when we played them in the conference tournament. Tonight we started out really confident, but I think they came back a lot harder than we may have expected.”
Central returned the favor with a 13-0 blitz that spanned the entire second period as North County went 0-for-9 from the field. Two quick baskets from Megan Skaggs forged the game’s final lead change.
The Lady Raiders held possession for nearly 80 seconds late in the half, and drew two fouls while trying to slow the pace.
But Central would get the defensive stop, and Jones drove end to end for a pull-up jumper at the buzzer and a 25-15 advantage.
Eaton stopped the longer of two pivotal dry spells for the Lady Raiders with a 3-pointer, and baskets from Falls and Kekec reduced their deficit to 31-27.
The rivalry should continue to be among the area’s best carrying into next year. Neither squad had a senior among its five starters.
North County 15 0 15 9 – 39
Central 12 13 10 14 – 49
North County – Emily Eaton 18, Marianna Falls 11, Kourtney Kekec 8, Holly Forbes 1, Allie Hammack 1. 3-point FG – Eaton. (FT: 8-13)
Central – Megan Skaggs 14, MacKenzie Jones 13, Peyton Caldwell 6, Olivia Casey 5, Sydney Skaggs 4, Abby Fischbeck 4, Jensen Uding 3. 3-point FG – Uding. (FT: 14-25)