The Pickerington High School North girls basketball team believes it is getting closer to defeating top-caliber opponents.
The Panthers entered the week with six losses by a combined 39 points against competition that included the four-time defending Division II state champions (Shaker Heights Hathaway Brown), a Division I state semifinalist from last year (Reynoldsburg) and a team with four Division I signees (Gahanna).
One of those setbacks, a 49-48 loss to Solon on Jan. 21 in the Classic in the Country at Berlin Hiland, constitutes some improvement.
The Panthers led 45-43 with 2 minutes, 55 seconds to play, but two foul calls that went against North helped seal the outcome despite sophomore guard Emily Thomas hitting a tying 3-pointer with 8.2 seconds left. Solon also was 9-for-12 from the foul line, including Alexis Gray' go-ahead free throw with 3.4 seconds left, and North was 6-for-13.
Thomas missed from half court as time expired.
"Really, for 31 minutes and 20 seconds, it was our game," coach Dave Butcher said. "We made a few mistakes late and made a couple plays, but allowed (Solon) to make a big foul shot. It was a one-possession game. We did good things. We played them really strong most of the game. We either can't catch a break or make our own, one of the two."
Despite earlier close losses to Hathaway Brown (58-52 on Nov. 23), Newark (52-50 in double overtime Dec. 7), Centerville (39-35 on Dec. 29) and Gahanna (50-42 on Jan. 8), Butcher and the Panthers say they're not frustrated.
"We're right there," sophomore guard Aubrey Lukascko said. "It's going to be hard with some losses and we'll have a (lower) seed (in the district tournament), but we'll battle through. That's what we prepare for."
The Panthers could earn a signature win Friday, Feb. 1, at home against Reynoldsburg. They lost 50-32 on Dec. 21 to the Raiders, who entered the week 16-2 overall and 10-0 in the OCC-Ohio Division and were ranked fourth in last week's Division I state poll.
The game is at 6 p.m., the first half of a doubleheader that concludes with the Panthers' boys playing host to the Raiders.
"We're not questioning the kids' effort. We just have to step up at critical, key moments," said Butcher, whose team entered the week at 12-6 overall and 7-3 in the OCC-Ohio. "When we do those things, 'L's will be 'W's. We're close, and that's what's so frustrating. But we continue to hang in there. We're still a good basketball team. (The losses) are going to hurt our tournament seed, but that's OK. You have to win so many games, but we still get to see Reynoldsburg and Gahanna again (at home Feb. 8). Hopefully we can get on a little run here late and go into the tournament and see what happens."
The district tournament draw is Sunday, Feb. 3, and the tournament begins Feb. 16.
Junior forward Brittany Johnson and senior guard Christy Macioce each scored 11 points against Reynoldsburg. Junior center Alyssa Rice scored a game-high 14 and senior guard Yamonie Jenkins added 12 for the Raiders, who outscored the Panthers 16-2 in the third quarter to pull away.
North entered the week third in the OCC-Ohio, behind Reynoldsburg and Gahanna (8-1) and ahead of Pickerington Central (5-5), which the Panthers played Jan. 29.
Lukascko still thinks North has a chance to be a surprise team in the district tournament despite its reputation. The Panthers had won eight consecutive district championships, and Butcher had won 23, before a 63-46 loss to Gahanna in a district final last year.
"Without a doubt, we'll catch some people off guard," Lukascko said. "We've had that bad luck a few times, a few mess-ups, but come tournament time we will no doubt surprise some people."
Central's Thomas making contributions
Hampered by a shoulder injury, 5-foot-10 junior forward Kiana Thomas has struggled to contribute consistently for Central.
But in a Jan. 19 game against Ironton, she entered early in the fourth quarter with the Tigers leading by nine and made back-to-back layups to push the lead to 34-21. She also helped sustain a few possessions with offensive rebounds.
"She's a very active person in the post," junior guard Amari Hawkins said. "She's a big leader, too."
Thomas has scored her season high of eight points twice, in a 40-30 win over Lancaster on Dec. 7 and a 73-20 win over Independence on Dec. 22.
"With her, it's a day-to-day thing," coach James Stutzman said. "The way we matched up with (Ironton), she came out and got a couple baskets and a rebound or two which were very big and helped us turn the table and instead of a few bucket (lead), it got to 10 or 12. Once we got it there, our girls relaxed a lot more and I thought their girls tensed up and weren't as active on their offensive end."