Lawrence North spent all of Saturday's girls basketball game pressing North Central, trying to steal the ball, trying to disrupt its offense. The host Panthers worked hard to beat the press and kept turnovers to a minimum -- until the very end of overtime.
On the most important play of the day, the Wildcats deflected a pass-in and turned it into a jump ball with seconds to go. Possession went to the Wildcats, preventing the Panthers from attempting a last shot that could have tied the score. The Wildcats prevailed 66-61, deflecting a serious challenge and averting a Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference upset Saturday afternoon.
"That's what we're going to do," Lawrence North coach Chris Giffin said of the continuous defensive pressure. "It wears on people."
North Central's do-everything senior Celeste Edwards almost wore out the Wildcats. The 5-11 Edwards brings the ball up and jumps center. She's one of the holdovers from the Panthers' defending Class 4A state championship team.
Saturday, Edwards scored 31 points (taking 36 shots) while playing the entire game. Edwards tied the score or gave her team the lead six times. Wildcats guard Ana Owens drew the assignment of covering Edwards.
"She's just long," Owens said of Edwards' arms. "Long and very talented."
Lawrence North (16-3) had more balanced scoring with center Mikale Rogers (17 points) and Destiny Washington (14 points, nine rebounds) dominating in the low post with their superior size. The Wildcats outrebounded the Panthers 60-46. Yet at no time did it seem as if the Wildcats would pull away from North Central (9-7).
"I guess it was going to be tough," said Owens, who had 12 points. "Coach said they had not been blown out and they didn't blow anybody out, so we knew it was going to be close."
The hosts briefly looked as if they might stun Lawrence North, closing the first half with a 40-33 lead. Giffin thought his team was sluggish and his terse message in the locker room was, "Just wake up."
Just like that, Lawrence North ran off the first eight points of the second half to re-take the lead in less than 2 minutes.
"We fought," Rogers said.
Despite holding a four-point lead and the ball near the end of regulation, the Wildcats almost let the game slip away. North Central forced overtime, the Wildcats took a deep breath, then played more under control.
Down the stretch in OT, the Wildcats made their free throws when they needed them. Jordan Hankins hit the clinching points with four foul shots in the final 10 seconds.
"We started to calm down and take our time," Rogers said. "You've just got to be smart in overtime."