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KENLY — With only seven players tasked with playing through double overtime, the North Johnston High varsity girls basketball team did just enough to capture a 52-48 victory over Creedmoor Falls Lake Academy in the Johnstonian News Holiday Invitational championship on Friday night.
“I think we did just enough to win,” head coach Jay Poole said. “That’s a good quality opponent. That’s a good opponent that tries to show you conference. I told the girls, that’s what conference is going to be like, night in night out, like that.”
In a close game, the team couldn’t do much to slow down the game’s leading scorer, Julia Zupicich, who finished with 26 points — 23 which came in the second half.
Zupicich had an impressive showing of both outside range and inside quickness that earned her a spot on the all-tournament team for the Firebirds. But in overtime, junior guard Arial Pearce took over, scoring six of the last eight points for the Panthers to close out the game and secure most valuable player honors.
“I was definitely not expecting it,” Pearce said of capturing top recognition after scoring 38 points over the two-day tournament. “Especially with how I came in freshman year, to now, the growth — I’m just going to give my teammates credit to because without them, and practicing with them. They make me who I am.”
To take down the Firebirds, Pearce paced the offense with 16 points, but falling in behind her was another night of balanced scoring across the board. Senior Mackenzie Gibson followed closely behind Pearce with 14 points, while Jessie Gross scored 13 points and Imoni Hines finished with nine.
“To have that kind of balance, you just don’t get that every night,” Poole said. “I wish there were more free throws, but they hung in there. Fatigue looked like it was starting to set in, looked like it could have made a little difference with the free throws, but they didn’t let it effect them but so much.”
North Johnston stayed ahead for most of the game, taking hold of a slight lead midway through the second quarter that translated to a six-point advantage at halftime. Like it had the night before, North Johnston exercised patience to find the right shot.
In the first quarter, the Lady Panthers scored all six of their points from the free-throw line. When halftime was over, the team’s lead quickly fell apart.
In a matter of minutes, Zupicich, who had three points in the first half, exploded to reach the teens, making three 3-pointers in a row as the Firebirds tied the game at 33 headed into the fourth quarter.
“Man-to-man defense was pretty good, but No. 5 just stretches you out so far,” Poole said. “She’s really a good player and we tried to know her whereabouts at all times, but she was hitting shots (from) 25 feet, it seemed like, at times.”
Despite Zupicich having an influence on the offensive pace in the fourth quarter, Falls Lake did not find the victory it had hoped at the end of regulation. As time expired, Pearce fouled freshman center Ashbee Standridge. But with two chances to end the game as the Panthers looked on, Standridge missed both shots and the game moved into overtime.
In the first overtime period, the nerves got the best of both teams. With just one basket each, scored by Pearce and Carmen Moore, respectively, the teams entered a second overtime period tied at 44.
That’s when Pearce took over, scoring a layup despite being fouled, then knocking down the free throw. Pearce gave her team a five-point lead early on, which was enough to hold on the rest of the way.
“Honestly, I was trying to drive in and get fouls so I could get some free shots,” Pearce said. “But I mean, I really just got lucky. I was just driving, driving, driving.”
After the performance, Pearce headlined the all-tournament team, which recognized the best player from each program.
Joining her was teammate Jessie Gross, who contributed on the defensive end and scored 18 points over the course of two victories.
Representing the runners-up, Zupicich was honored after an impressive performance in defeat. Katie Vick was honored for leading her Raleigh Christian team to a rebound victory after scoring just seven points the previous day, while Arzhane Dozier represented Rosewood.