North High girls basketball coach Brianna James embraced Taylor Sunga, her only senior on the roster this season. The two couldn’t contain their emotions any longer as tears rolled down their faces.
And for good reason — the previous two-plus hours were an emotional and physical roller coaster.
Before Tuesday's regular season finale, North honored Sunga in a ceremony before the school celebrated the career of longtime coach Curt DeRossett.
Then the Stars went out and beat Highland 55-44 in overtime to finish 8-0 in Southeast Yosemite League play and secure the first outright league title for the program since 2003-04.
“That’s why we do this. This is exactly why I wanted to be here,” said James, who is in her third year as head coach at her alma mater. “We have the best kids. They work the hardest...Look at those 11 kids when I walk in (the locker room). That’s why I do it.”
James was on the junior varsity team the last time North won an outright league title 14 years ago.
“That’s hard to put into words,” James said. “I used to come to North High basketball games as a kid and watch coach DeRossett and the kids play so hard. We weren’t always the best, but we work the hardest. That’s something I wanted to bring to North High.”
Highland (13-13, 6-2) did everything to push the Stars shot at an outright league title to the brink.
Nayeli Chavolla hit a 30-footer as time expired at halftime and scored a team-high 18 for the Scots, who had a 41-40 lead with less than 30 seconds to play in regulation.
Then Sunga sank two free throws to give North a one-point lead with 23.4 seconds left.
“I just think it’s a moment where you have to have your teammates’ back,” Sunga said. “It’s a clutch moment. But you have to ignore the crowd. Ignore what everyone else is saying and do your job and get it done.”
On the opposite side of the court, Neveah Linton hit one of two free throws to tie the score and send it to overtime after sophomore Aliyah Johnson’s shot at the buzzer rolled out for the Stars.
But Johnson scored four of her game-high 22 points in the fourth quarter as North outscored the Scots 13-2 in overtime.
“I am so impressed with (Highland),” James said. “It was a battle. That’s what a league championship should look like.”
Amaya Lawton and Marsha Lopez each scored 10 points for Highland and Kimberly Chavez chipped in with 15 for the Stars.
Johnson, who transferred to North from Kern Valley where she averaged 22.1 points last season for the Broncs, led the Stars this season with 22.2 points a game.
At 5-foot-10, the sophomore has the ability to play inside on defense and has the range to hit shots from long range and run the offense as the point guard as well.
“Aliyah has been a huge blessing, I’m not going to lie. It’s not every day that happens to you as a coach,” James said about Johnson’s move to North. “She’s embraced our direction and is very coachable.”
But it was Sunga, in her final regular season home game as a high school basketball player, who took a moment after the game to soak in the atmosphere.
“It’s been a blessing to just be a part of all of it,” Sunga said. “It’s been a long journey. We really deserved it and it means a lot.”