KINGSFORD - They call this March Madness for a reason.
The North Central girls basketball team showed why Tuesday night as they eliminated second-ranked and previously unbeaten Superior Central 53-48 in a Class D regional basketball opener.
North Central (16-8) returns to the Kingsford High School gym Thursday at 7 p.m. (EST) to face third-ranked Forest Park (22-1) in the title contest. The Cougars finished 23-1.
North Central’s Siena LaBonte (25) and Superior Central’s Brooke Pasanen (11) battle for the ball in an MHSAA Class D regional semifinal Tuesday at Kingsford High School. (Iron Mountain Daily News photo by Burt Angeli)
"It was a close game all the way," said senior guard Darcy Rochon, who led the Jets with 22 points. "They (Cougars) put up a good fight all the way. We just kept pushing the ball up the court (in the fourth quarter)."
North Central's latest victory took place four nights after it eliminated fifth-ranked Bark River-Harris 70-68 in a district final, avenging two regular-season losses in each case.
The Cougars led 45-38 after junior forward Vanessa Freberg drained a pair of three throws with five minutes, 18 seconds left in the contest.
North Central responded with a 12-1 run, gaining a 50-46 cushion on a layup by sophomore Audra Granquist with 1:53 left to play.
The Jets, who led much of the first half, had regained the lead (48-46) approximately 20 seconds earlier on Rochon's jump shot from top of the key.
"That was a big boost, but we also knew we had to keep going," said Rochon. "You never know what might happen in tournaments."
The Jets, who trailed 41-34 after the third stanza, outscored the Cougars 19-7 in the fourth.
"We basically told the girls they had to keep working," said Jets' coach Nikki Laurila. "We changed our defense a few times, and I think that threw them off balance. We also told the girls they had to stick with Freberg because we knew they would be looking for her. We wanted to make somebody else beat us."
Despite being the focus of North Central's defense, Freberg finished with a career-high 32 points and five assists.
"Vanessa had a pretty good ball game," said Cougars' coach Greg Trowbridge. "As a team, we weren't patient enough on offense in the first half. We became more patient in the third quarter, then we rushed a few things again in the fourth."
The Cougars trailed 29-26 at halftime, but Freberg provided all the scorng during an 8-2 run to put them ahead 34-31 during the opening 3 minutes of the third frame.
"The girls came out strong in the third quarter and we had the momentum until the last couple minutes," said Trowbridge. "We had some good looks at the basket from 3-point range, but we weren't hitting those shots. We also gave up a few layups and made some mental mistakes in the fourth quarter. We didn't do a good job boxing out. They're a physical team. It's hard to keep them off the boards."
Junior center Morgan Wells and sophomore forward Baylee Wells added 12 points each for the Jets, who held a 29-23 rebounding advantage. They sank 21-of-52 field goals and committed 21 turnovers.
The Cougars, who hit 19-of-53 shots, also had 21 miscues.
"We had a great season," said Trowbridge. "We didn't want it to end this way."