The sports term “championship or bust” is thrown around pretty freely these days, but for the McKinney North Lady Bulldogs basketball team, the phrase is completely applicable.
“Our kids aren’t going to think we had a great season unless they are holding up that trophy at the state tournament,” said head coach Michael Oldham after practice on Wednesday.
The Lady Bulldogs, ranked No. 8 in the state according to TABC, defeated Longview Pine Tree 78-26 in the Bi-district round on Monday night, advancing to face Red Oak in the Area round Friday night at Sachse High School. With the win, North secured its 30th victory of the season, but according to Oldham, the only record that matters at this point is their playoff record that stands at 1-0.
“You are only as good as your last game, and after Monday night I said we were 1-0 because that is the only record that matters,” said Oldham. “If we were to lose a playoff game all 11 of us are going to feel deflated. Winning 30 games wasn’t our goal.”
Oldham said that when his team sealed up the district title back on Jan. 25 with a win over Wylie, his players showed little emotion after the game and moved on quickly from the celebration, as if the championship was something every player had expected.
The Lady Bulldogs didn’t just have a district title in their plans; they wanted the big trophy down in Austin.
“I think we are all determined to get to state,” said senior Alexis Mason.
Mason, the senior point guard and team leader, averages 17 points per game and nearly five assists and rebounds per game. That makes her an obvious mismatch for every opponent. But while the Lady Bulldogs need her presence on the court to win a state title, Mason said the key to this year’s team is their ability to play together as a singular unit.
“It is not just one person scoring all of the points. It is everyone pitching in and doing their part,” said Mason.
Other key players for North includes sophomore Chanterria Jackson, who averages nearly 14 PPG and a team-high 7.5 RPG, giving the Lady Bulldogs the presence in the paint that every state-caliber team needs.
The only other player to average double-digits in scoring is junior Mikaehla Connor, who averages 10 PPG and 4 APG.
“KK (Connor) does a little bit of everything because a lot of things she does isn’t seen by the casual observer,” said Oldham. “She doesn’t turn the ball over despite handling the ball more now. This year she really upped her assists and started scoring in double figures more often.”
Connor is in her second season as a varsity player at North, after starting on the Lovejoy varsity squad her freshman year. She said that the team is excited about this year’s playoff run after the early exit in last year’s postseason, when the Lady Bulldogs lost in the regional quarterfinals versus Highland Park.
“Everyone is just excited considering last year we got to the third round and lost,” said Connor. “So this year we want to go really far and get to state.”
While up and down the roster the Lady Bulldogs are filled with quality players, undoubtedly one of their most emotional leaders is senior Viona Vraniqi. Despite averaging just 2.5 PPG off the bench, Vraniqi is the vocal leader on the court and even conducts the pre-game handshakes with the starting lineup as they run through their introductions.
“Viona plays that bench player who we can always depend on to take a charge and play strong defense,” said Oldham. “She is upbeat from the minute she gets on the floor until she gets off. She is a leader and always cheers everyone on.”
Vraniqi has played under Oldham for the past three seasons at North, including playing on the JV squad coached by Oldham during her sophomore season. After practice on Wednesday, Vraniqi said the overall mood of the team is pretty upbeat.
“We are feeling good,” said Vraniqi. “That was a good outcome for the first game and a good way to start off the playoffs, and now we have that momentum to carry us through the continuing games. We are just focused on taking it one game at a time.”
For a team that has won 23 consecutive games, including finishing 14-0 through district play, Vraniqi said the team’s approach entering every game has stayed the same all season long.
“I think just our ability to go into the game and treating every game the same has helped us,” she said. “We don’t go into a game thinking ‘OK, this one will be easy.’ We just go into every game with the same mentality and leave it all out on the court, regardless of who we play.”
Even though the opponent wasn’t nearly as strong as they will face in the upcoming weeks, Oldham said he was impressed with how things “came together” on Monday night versus Pine Tree.
“We had several times where four or five girls touched the ball before we scored,” said Oldham. “The sharing of the ball is what stands out, and we can share the ball because everyone on the team can shoot the three-pointer. Plus our length causes mismatch problems for a lot of teams. I hate to say it is unfair but it does seem like at times it is unfair.”
Oldham said the length advantage of his team allows a forward like Jackson to guard opponent’s point guards, which he did on Monday night versus Pine Tree. He said the same approach might be true for Red Oak on Friday night, if the matchup looks right.
“I think we match up well with what they do and what we do. We should come out victorious,” said Oldham.
With three players averaging double figures in scoring per game, one would assume the offense would be the strongest asset of the team, but according to the Lady Bulldogs, they take the most pride in their ability to play a stifling defense.
“I think our defense is pretty impressive,” said Connor. “We attack the ball well and try to get every steal we can.”
“Shots won’t always fall, but you can always control how hard you play on defense,” said Vraniqi.
But Vraniqi said it also helps to have an equally aggressive and potent offensive attack.
“We are a very fast paced team,” she said. “Our strength is really playing in transition and looking to push the ball down the court before defenses have time to set up.”
“You have to close out on the three-point line because everyone can shoot it from there,” said Connor.
North needs just five more victories to complete its mission of winning a state championship, and for a team that has stayed focused despite the media hype surrounding them and the heightened pre season expectations that was placed on them, there aren’t too many people who are doubting the Lady Bulldogs these days.
“It has been a freight train all season long,” said Vraniqi. “Things have just been going for us and we feel really good.”
North will face Red Oak at Sachse High School on Friday night, beginning at 7 p.m.