by Cliff Mehrtens

HUNTERSVILLE – Sometimes, a basketball team’s best work is far from the court.

North Mecklenburg High’s girls’ team learned that – and much about themselves – during team-building exercises coach Jennifer Baker introduced last summer. No running, shooting or any aspect of holding a basketball.

It was a checkup from the neck up.

“We had a very heartfelt meeting before the season started,” Baker said. “We went through an activity and just kind of laid it all out there and got everything out in the open. It got to the point where some things were hard to hear. It made sure everybody knew how their teammates felt about them and how they were viewed on the team.

“It was ‘this is what we think about you,’ and everybody was able to respond to that because there were no secrets.”

It’s also no secret that the Vikings are one of the area’s top teams. They improved to 12-1 overall, and 3-0 in the I-MECK 4A conference, with a 54-50 victory against Hough on Jan. 4.

North Mecklenburg won its first six games, lost to unbeaten Myers Park and won its next six games.

Baker’s squad is deep, talented and willing to share the ball and the spotlight.

Against Hough, Baker often substituted two or three players at a time. On some teams, that destroys rhythm. At North Meck, it enhances the flow.

“We trust everybody,” senior guard Jasmine Bullock said. “We know the players who come in are going to play as hard and well as the people they replace. It feels good to trust everybody.”

North Mecklenburg doesn’t have one scoring sensation. Instead, five Vikings average between 12.8 and 7.2 points per game. Others off the bench are equally adept at scoring.

That balance makes North Mecklenburg difficult to guard, and they’re very familiar with guarding. Baker fosters a defense-first mentality and demands that all 14 Vikings “play hard-nosed defense.”

Her approach is an extension of what was preached last summer.

“I told them ‘When you guys are ready to give up the ‘me’ and take it for the team, the sky’s the limit for our group,’ ” Baker said.

The victory against Hough was the first time North Mecklenburg beat the Huskies, who swept both games in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons. It was special, too, for senior captains Kelly Beasley and Bullock, who played with most of Hough’s seniors when they all began as North Mecklenburg freshmen as well as in AAU competition.

“We work together and use each others’ strengths,” said Beasley, who averages 7.2 points. “We accepted each other (last summer) and know we can be open with each other. We can get constructive criticism. It was hard to start, but once we got into it, we all saw we had the same goal.”

Destiny Barrino, a junior guard, leads North Mecklenburg in scoring (12.8 average) and averages 4.8 rebounds and 4.4 steals.

Backcourt mate Brianna Jones averages 8.2 points, 2.8 assists and 2.8 steals. The threats under the basket are Jasmine Cash (7.2 points and 5.5 rebounds) and Jaydah Hayden (8.6 points). Bullock averages a team-high four assists per game.

The Vikings were resilient in the back-and-forth victory against Hough. A 7-2 run gave North Mecklenburg a 24-18 lead. Hough responded with seven straight points, but North Meck reeled off 10 straight for a 34-25 lead.

Hough’s lone lead of the fourth quarter was at 40-39.

“It was a little nerve-racking, but what we did well was keep our composure,” Baker said. “A year ago, we would have started arguing and pushing the blame game. The maturity level of the girls, as a group, pushed us through to the end. They didn’t get rattled and they executed. That’s the difference.”

Baker and her staff showed their appreciation for the players’ hard work recently with a locker room makeover. It’s more like a college room with players’ pictures on the lockers and a banner with action photos.

The Vikings, Bullock said, realize that last summer’s pain is paying dividends.

“It was definitely hard, but I think it went really well,” she said. “It’s why we’re so close as a team and why we’re having this great start.”

North Mecklenburg girls basketball schedule

Date - Opponent - Time

Jan. 11 at Vance 6 p.m.

Jan. 18 Mooresville 6:30 p.m.

Jan. 22 at Hopewell 6 p.m.

Jan. 25 at Lake Norman 6 p.m.

Jan. 29 West Charlotte 6 p.m.

Feb. 1 at Hough 6 p.m.

Feb. 5 Mallard Creek 6 p.m.