Flu, injury and even pink eye may have muddled Arundel’s season as it dips into the second half of January.
But on Tuesday evening, it couldn’t put the Wildcats down completely.
The eight players that comprised the Arundel roster battled against a scrappy North County squad to eventually break through a stalemate and mount a double-digit victory, 61-51.
“We’re getting there. I think we’re improving,” North County coach Dan Mangum said. “I know they were short too, but that game was lost in the last four minutes where we didn’t convert and we turned the ball over.”
When asked about the game, Arundel coach Lee Rogers declined to comment.
Wildcats sophomore Heather Middleton (19 points) finished out the game the same way she began it — with the ball in her hand. Middleton’s prowess from both the perimeter and the paint carried heavy buckets of water for Arundel (9-4) in the first quarter, as she posted 13 of the team’s 17 points, including nine from beyond the arc.
That’s something the Knights (3-9) very swiftly worked to remedy. By the second quarter, Middleton couldn’t step anywhere without a calvary on her tail — leaving room for the North County offense to map out its comeback.
Knights starter Aireona Holland, who’d go on to total 25 points, 11 rebounds and five steals on her hosts, stripped Arundel clean and rushed in for a layup that brought the score within one possession.
Holland remembered all too vividly her last encounters with the Wildcats ending sourly, despite her own offensive efforts, like in a January overtime loss last winter.
“It’s a competition every year. You’ve got to come out stronger every time,” she said.
Once, the Wildcats batted her efforts away. As senior guard Arianna Harmon spilled onto the floor, she whipped a pass that skidded into junior Ayannah Matthews’ hands, which she flipped in for two. Senior Alexis Galarza wheeled back and popped in her shot to punch out the Arundel lead to four.
That was enough to stave off North County the second time Holland returned a stolen good for a layup, moments later.
The next time the ball fell into her grasp, the Wildcats weren’t so fortunate.
After Holland’s basket knotted the game at 24, her solo shot from the foul line handed the Knights its first advantage since the first quarter.
“It’s a competition every year,” Holland said. “You’ve got to come out stronger every time.”
Control couldn’t last. The flag returned to the Arundel side as Brandy Middleton fired a trey to recapture the lead and was taken once again as North County’s 15 deposited another two points. On and on, the two squads grappled with supremacy until the buzzer sounded, the dust settled, and the score remained knotted at 29 apiece.
With Heather Middleton shouldering a bulk of the Arundel effort in the first half – carrying 15 points into the break – the home team needed to shift the spotlight to another figure.
When there’s only seven other girls, that doesn’t leave many options.
Quickly, sophomore Tye Queen made that decision for the group. She scooped up Middleton’s dish for the go-ahead then time and time again wrestled through a pack of black-clad guards to drop the ball in the net.
By the time the young Knights recalibrated and threw bodies against her, Queen had rattled up eight points in under four minutes.
The junior forward retaliated with the field goal that reclaimed the lead, for what would be for good. As North County looked to strike back, Matthews severely limited their options, swiping the ball from their hands and turning it for a foul-drawing layup.
As Holland shaved the divide to two points yet again, Matthews knew what to do — pushing Arundel out with another drop right before time expired in the third.
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Holland wouldn’t quit, responding almost immediately in the fourth, buoyed by her teammate, Jalyn Baynard, who cut a six-point Wildcats advantage in half from beyond the arc.
And yet, for the first time all game, the Wildcats were able to put open field between them and their visitors. Middleton and Queen brushed off their pursuers and six and four points, respectively, while Matthews added another two.
Still, Arundel couldn’t quite break into double-digits. That is, not until junior guard RaMyah Yearwood, fresh off her own games-gobbling injury, perched at the 3-point line, looked up and let loose the bucket that would cement a 10-point lead, 59-49 — one that North County couldn’t find the right shots to pick apart.
“Every game, we’ve got to keep playing, even if we’re down. We lose by five every year,” Holland said. “We were coming in confident. I guess we just didn’t come back as far as we thought we were going to. We have to talk more on defense and pass the ball better on offense.”
Time was certainly sitting in the Arundel side of the bleachers by then, and wayward shots had cost the Knights too much. One basket before game’s end wasn’t enough to hand North County a win, but that didn’t mean Mangum left the Gambrills gymnasium feeling overly frustrated.
“They played hard right ‘til the end. They played hard,” Mangum said. “I don’t have a problem with our effort. I just have a problem with our execution. … You couldn’t say they didn’t play hard. But right now, we’re looking for one more stop along the way, one more basket.”