For at least a quarter, it seemed like East Chapel Hill’s senior night for girls basketball would follow the same script as much of its season.
Then came a 19-0 second quarter explosion for East. The Wildcats used some of the best ball movement they’ve had all season to put the Crusaders on their heels — with four assists on five made baskets and a 9-10 line on the free throw line in the second period.
That outburst was enough to put East ahead for good in a 43-37 win.
“We’ve really been working on trying to get everybody involved in the offense when the opportunity arises,” coach Michelle Wood said. “We executed and stayed calm, we didn’t get flustered by their pressure in the second half.”
Cardinal Gibbons responded and cut the deficit to as few as two in the fourth quarter, but senior T.J. Johnson made sure the Crusaders didn’t come any closer. Her layup in traffic after she’d dribbled the length of the court stretched the Wildcats’ lead back to four with two minutes left, then she found junior Katie Characklis for another layup to give East a six-point lead.
Madi Bonello, Cardinal Gibbons’ leading scorer on the night with 10, hit a three shortly after to bring the Crusaders within three, but again East’s seniors made the crunch-time play. Senior Grace Vincent hit a layup and Johnson hit a free throw to provide the final margin.
Like she has been all season, Johnson was the motor driving the Wildcats. She finished with 21 points, 11 rebounds and three assists in her final home regular season game of her career and her ball skills and incisive passing were crucial In breaking Cardinal Gibbons’ press defense late in the game.
“She’s just invaluable to our team,” Wood said. “When she’s not having a good night, we’re not having a good night.”
After failing to clinch the conference on Monday night, East Chapel Hill’s boys basketball team didn’t miss its second chance with a statement 53-37 win on Tuesday night against Cardinal Gibbons. The win assures first place in the PAC-6 for the Wildcats with one more game to go in the regular season.
“We lost a tough game last night on the road, and the kids were pretty bummed out about it,” coach Ray Hartsfield said. “They put their energy in coming back and getting it done tonight.”
Ferocious defense set the tone early for the Wildcats. The 37 points tied a season-low for the Crusaders, and they struggled to find and hit shots against an amoeba-like zone defense for East that contorted every which way to suffocate Cardinal Gibbons without breaking.
“We try to put our staple on defend and rebound, and I thought in the first half we were as good as we’ve been all year,” Hartsfield said.
Carter Collins led the way for the Wildcats with 26 points, often scoring at will like he has for much of this season in his final home regular season game of his career.
“Anybody will tell you, X’s and O’s are good, but Jimmy’s and Joe’s, you need them,” Hartsfield said. “He’s just special.”
As the reigning conference player of the year, Collins is the leader for the award again this season. He’ll look to continue to make his case when the Wildcats start tournament play next Thursday.