HERCULANEUM, Mo. – The North County girls safely clinched a spot in the Black and Red Classic final for the third consecutive year on Wednesday night.
Struggles with ball security and close-range shooting may require some quick correction for the Lady Raiders to become three-time tournament champions.
Senior guard Paris Larkin shined with 12 of her 16 points arriving over a six-minute stretch of the third quarter, and North County defeated host school Herculaneum 46-31.
A physical rebounding presence marked a clear positive in favor of the Lady Raiders, who will face top seed Lutheran South in a familiar title-game pairing on Friday at 8:30 p.m.
Lainey Calkins neared a double-double by halftime at center, and finished with 18 rebounds and 11 points while also diving on the floor to make three steals.
And although North County (4-0) was limited to four points in the fourth quarter, its defensive effort was conversely more impressive throughout a stifling first half.
Herculaneum (3-2) was an empty 0-of-9 from the field with five turnovers in the opening quarter, and could never threaten after yielding an 8-0 run within the first 2:01 of the contest.
Larkin scored instantly off the opening tip, and Addy Mann hit an uncontested putback after Calkins knocked down a jumper in the lane.
Lauren Politte beat the Lady Blackcats to the basket twice after dribbling from the backcourt, and contributed eight points and eight rebounds overall.
Seven minutes of scoreless defense propelled North County to a 12-1 advantage when the quarter concluded. A number of misses within 6 feet prevented the difference from being larger.
Taylor Thompson ended the field-goal drought for Herculaneum on an aggressive drive to start the second stanza, and netted a team-high eight points while collecting nine rebounds.
North County countered as Politte located Calkins in the low post for three separate scoring plays. An inbounds pass produced a 3-pointer for wide-open guard Alyssa Ludwig, one of five freshmen in the lineup rotation.
After being held to five points in 15 minutes, the Lady Blackcats trailed 24-8 at halftime once Jillian Jarvis chased down a loose ball and threw an excellent assist from her knees to Kristina Walker.
Larkin, whose buzzer beater sealed the title last season, revived a slowing offense by attacking often in the third quarter, either off the dribble or by catching outlet passes in transition.
She split two defenders on a diagonal slash through the paint to finish a difficult layup, and later avoided a collision on a short pull-up.
Two free throws by Larkin created the largest lead of the night at 40-12. But as the North County seniors were given time to rest, Herculaneum began to coax a bevy of unforced miscues.
Amia Moore turned two of her five steals into layups down the stretch and ended with seven points. A pair of 3-pointers by Jarvis also highlighted a 17-6 scoring margin in the fourth quarter.
Lutheran South dispatched Notre Dame (St. Louis) 54-38 in the previous semifinal game.