ROWLETT — McKinney North head girls basketball coach Veronica Reed-Hamilton said prior to Monday's regional quarterfinal against Red Oak that junior Ciara Harris was due for a big game.
Harris, who earned co-district MVP honors as a sophomore, echoed a similar sentiment.
"My stats had been pretty iffy lately. I know the further we get the harder it's going to be, so I had to focus on certain things like my finishing and watching my fouls," Harris said.
Not only did Harris help stake the Lady Bulldogs to a 28-14 halftime lead on Monday, she outscored the entire Red Oak team along the way. North's two-way sensation poured in 16 of her game-high 26 points in the first half, sparking a team-wide defensive effort to stifle the Lady Hawks en route to a 55-38 victory from Rowlett High School that secured the program's first regional semifinal berth since 2015.
FINAL: McKinney North 55, Red Oak 38After trailing 9-4 early into the 1st, @MNHSwbball regroups and turns this rematch into a rout. Double-digit scoring nights from Ciara Harris (26), Kaelyn Hamilton (11) and Ryhan Balous (10) send the Lady Bulldogs to the regional semifinals. pic.twitter.com/EI03IAGdR8
Fittingly enough, it was that same year was when the Lady Bulldogs were led by Harris' older sister, North alum Chanterria Jackson, during a prolific stretch for the program that included a state runner-up finish the year prior in 2014.
"This was big for us. Eight years ago was around when my sister went to state, and getting back there is a goal that we've had since the preseason," Harris said. "We knew the potential that we had and our schedule helped prepare us for this kind of competition. It goes up in the playoffs and when those hard-hitters start hitting, you've got to hit back. Getting this one tonight is a big deal and we want to take it all the way to state."
That mentality served the Lady Bulldogs well on Monday, particularly after Red Oak began the game on a high note by jumping out to a 9-4 lead three-and-a-half minutes into the opening frame. The Lady Hawks pushed the pace from the onset, mixing their manic transition attack with stifling ball pressure in the backcourt.
"They're so fast and so good at what they do, you can't rest or relax against a team like that," Reed-Hamilton said.
The head coach wanted the Lady Bulldogs to match Red Oak's intensity, and coming out of an early timeout North's five-point deficit was gone in two minutes. The Lady Bulldogs exited the first quarter on a 10-2 run, sparked by Harris' play on both ends of the floor. In the first half alone, Harris complemented her 16 points with seven rebounds, five steals and three blocks.
"They had a post on me and I knew I was quicker than her, so I had to pull myself out and drive to the basket, and if their smaller guards were on me, I had to post up," Harris said. "I had to work my guard skills coming out and my post skills while also knowing that when they doubled down that someone else would be open."
HALF: McKinney North 28, Red Oak 14Have a night, Ciara Harris! The @MNHSwbball star outscored Red Oak 16-14 in the 1st half!! Unofficially, had her down for 7 rebs, 5 stls and 3 blks. An absurdly awesome half for Harris and the Lady Bulldogs, who outscore RO 14-5 in the 2nd. pic.twitter.com/2R8vEhcFfY
Harris accounted for eight of North's 11 made field goals in the first half, including an energetic sequence with 2:45 left in the second quarter where she stole the ball near mid-court and finished an and-one on the other end to usher in a raucous applause from the Lady Bulldogs' crowd.
"It really lifts us all up. When [Harris] is clicking on all cylinders, it takes our defense up a notch and is so good for us," Reed-Hamilton said.
North outscored Red Oak in the second quarter 14-5 to build a 14-point halftime lead that never crept below single digits the rest of the way. The Lady Bulldogs spread the wealth offensively with junior Kaelyn Hamilton and sophomore Ryhan Balous finishing in double figures with 11 and 10 points, respectively.
Red Oak's hot start fizzled, scoring nine points within the game's first three-and-a-half minutes but needing until the midpoint of the third quarter to score its next nine points. North's defense had plenty to do with that, walling off the driving lanes that the Lady Hawks found earlier in the game and hounding Red Oak on the boards.
Harris, Hamilton, and freshman Tiyana Alexander all grabbed at least seven rebounds in the win, while senior Alyssia Simmons provided a spark off the bench either by drawing a charge or keeping numerous possessions alive on the glass.
"We've always had kids who step up and take charges and one of them was (sophomore) Chloe (Kostka), who has been out," Reed-Hamilton said. "Alyssia is someone who has taken charges all year, and that was something we challenged the whole team to do before the game. If they were going to get in there and try to move us, we wanted to see who was willing to sacrifice their bodies and [Simmons] was someone who did that."
End 3Q: McKinney North 45, Red Oak 22Alyssia Simmons has had some impressive hustle plays on the glass tonight. She follows one up for a put-back below as @MNHSwbball continues to drop the hammer in this regional quarterfinal. pic.twitter.com/k8BVI7QvLB
The Lady Bulldogs led by as many as 25 points, moving within two wins of the program's second-ever trip to the UIL state tournament. Getting there won't come without its share of challenges, as North advances to Friday's regional semifinal from the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland to take on last season's 5A state runner-up, Frisco Memorial, at 7:30 p.m.
Elsewhere in the area
*District 6-6A's first-place duo of Plano and Plano East are bound for the area round after scoring bi-district wins on Monday. The Panthers blew open their rematch with McKinney Boyd by outscoring the Broncos 37-20 across the second and third quarters to fuel a 69-52 victory from Allen High School. Sophomore DJ Hall led the way with 16 points, while juniors Narit Chotikavanic and Xavier Miller also finished in double figures with 10 points apiece to send East to the second round for the first time since 2016. Senior Dre McKnight scored 23 points for a Boyd team making its first playoff appearance since 2013.
*Top-seeded Plano had a battle on its hands against 5-6A No. 4 seed Denton Guyer on Monday but managed to tough out a 53-48 victory behind a stout fourth quarter. Plano trailed at the half 31-19 before outscoring Guyer 34-17 the rest of the way, bolstered by some timely baskets late from junior Tyran Mason. He had eight of his game-high 16 points in the fourth quarter, complemented by 10-point outings from seniors Nikk Williams and Drew Forkner.
*Speaking of dangerous No. 4 seeds, Crandall was one to keep an eye on after toughing out a playoff berth in a district that included three teams ranked in the state's top 12. The Pirates needed to win a play-in game over Ennis just to punch its ticket to the postseason and they kept that run going on Monday by upsetting 13-5A champion Lovejoy, 44-35.
PHOTOS: McKinney North girls, Plano ISD boys pick up big playoff wins
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