McKinney North girls basketball

McKinney North sophomore Ciara Harris was named 10-5A defensive player of the year as a freshman.

The McKinney North girls basketball team had to grow up on the fly last season, entrusting several key roles to a cast of underclassmen and braving a challenging district for a second-place finish and a bi-district playoff appearance.

Even in the team’s lone postseason game — a contest where the Lady Bulldogs were without their second- and third-leading scorers — they were game in a 29-27 loss to a Frisco Liberty squad that went to finish as Class 5A state runners-up.

One month into its 2021-22 campaign, North has picked up where it left off. The Lady Bulldogs entered the month 7-1 on the year and ranked No. 9 in 5A by the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches. Early-season wins include private school powerhouse John Paul II, plus Red Oak and Sachse, with the team’s lone setback coming to aforementioned Liberty — all four went to the wire and were decided by five points or less.

“That’s been a major focus for us, getting out and testing the waters with height, talent, athleticism, skill,” said Veronica Reed-Hamilton, North head coach. “We know we’ll see some of it in district, and we want to make sure we get as many chances to see the combination of all those things early on. It’s big to get our girls tested like this early.”

One of the catalysts for North’s steady play last season was the emergence of sophomores Kaelin Hamilton and Ciara Harris, both of whom took on roles well beyond those of typical freshmen. They finished as North’s two leading scorers and were recognized accordingly by District 10-5A — Hamilton was named the league’s offensive player of the year and Harris earned defensive player of the year honors.

Both have since reprised their roles as sophomores. Hamilton is scoring a team-high 14.3 points per game with Harris right behind at 14.0. Harris is the team’s leading rebounder at 7.5 boards per game with Hamilton at 6.3. They’re among the team’s top producers in assists, steals and blocks per game as well.

“Watching them both, they just come right in knowing that they’re the ones who have to get us going offensively,” Reed-Hamilton said. “They’re shooting well from the field and the line. They really picked it back up and they know we need them to do well in order for us to win.”

Reed-Hamilton said that senior Jayden Smallwood has filled in nicely in a complementary capacity at 7.4 points and 2.6 steals per game after missing the bulk of her junior year due to injury, and that senior Alexis Catchings (6.9 points) has been a surprise standout for North early on. Those roles will be vital for a North team missing upstart sophomore Cheyenne Wooten, an all-district first-team pick who’s recovering from ACL surgery during the summer. 

Senior Yarnia Evans (3.3 points, 1.3 steals) sets the tone defensively for a group that has shined on that end of the floor — opponents have scored just 37 points per game against the Lady Bulldogs thus far.

“We’re more conscious of being in position,” Reed-Hamilton said. “We’re playing aggressively on the ball and trying to be as aggressive as possible in the passing lanes as well. We also look a little bit quicker. It’s been fun.”

The fifth-year head coach wants to see the Lady Bulldogs clean up some things on the defensive glass and with the team’s half-court offense — North has already shown capable of thriving when able to induce an up-tempo game and rely on scoring in transition.

“We’ve made strides in the half-court offense, but I really want to get to where if teams take away that stuff in transition and force you to run your stuff, we have to be able to execute,” Reed-Hamilton said.

Should those challenges emerge, it’ll likely come starting Dec. 14 when North opens district play against a Princeton team that impressed Reed-Hamilton during fall league. That will mark the first of 14 district ballgames as the Lady Bulldogs look to build off last season’s runner-up finish behind Wylie East.

But with those same Lady Raiders working through some offseason turnover, including the graduation of district MVP Akasha Davis and the transfer of district newcomer of the year Keyera Roseby, now at Frisco Liberty, North hopes to be in the mix for a 10-5A championship.

“This group is definitely hungry. Even though they’re young, they understand,” Reed-Hamilton said.

“Our seniors have been here, they know, get it and understand. They’re so hungry and focused. I’m excited about it. While we’re young on the court, we have the experience and knowledge of what it all means.”

For continued news and coverage on the local sports scene, follow Matt Welch on Twitter.

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