By Doug Gorman
TYRONE ? All high school basketball teams start the season with the same goal?making it to the state tournament.
The Forest Park Lady Panthers are just one more victory away from earning an invitation to the big dance.
Forest Park kept itself in state tournament contention Monday night with a dramatic 54-51 win against Alexander in the first round of the Region 4-AAAA tournament at Sandy Creek.
Forest Park advances to play the winner of the Northgate and Sandy Creek game Thursday at 7 p.m.
The top four finishers from the region tournament advance to the first round of next week's Class AAAA state tournament.
"We let them back in the game, but the bottom line is we are still playing," said Forest Park head coach Ron Chaffin.
The Lady Panthers led by as many 12 early in the second quarter, but they never could throw the knockout punch against Alexander, which stayed in the game with six 3-point shots.
Alexander whittled Forest Park's lead down to the eventual final score with 30 seconds remaining in the game when Dallas Smith connected on a pair of free throws.
From there, the Lady Panthers missed four free-throw attempts keeping Alexander's hopes alive.
However, the Cougars missed two 3-point attempts, including one from just over half-court as the buzzer sounded.
"We didn't do a very good job of hitting our free throws down the stretch," said Chaffin. "That's one of the things we will work on in between now and Thursday, but it will be practice as normal. At this point of the season, there's not too much you can work on."
The Lady Panthers used a balanced scoring attack in Monday's first round victory.
M'Keyla Reid and Marcquitta Head each scored 15. Tameka Pease added 10.
Alexander's Smith led all scorers with 17.
Smith came out on fire early for Alexander hitting two quick 3-point shots to open the game and give the Lady Cougars a 6-4 lead.
Pease then tied the game at 6 for Forest Park with her first basket of the game.
The Lady Cougars hit one of two free throws midway through the first period to give Alexander a 7-6 lead.
It was the last time the school from Douglas County would be out front on the scoreboard.
Venessa Jenkins' basket gave Forest Park an 8-7 lead and sparked a 9-2 run.
By the end of the first period, the Lady Panthers led 17-9.
The Lady Panthers kept control of the game to open the second period when Head connected on back-to-back baskets.
Her second shot of the quarter gave the Lady Panthers its biggest lead of the game at 21-9.
Head single-handedly took control of the Forest Park offense in the second quarter, scoring all her teams points.
Alexander proved it had plenty of life left when it went on a run sparked by Smith's trey.
The 3-point basket cut the lead to 21-15.
Although Head helped increase the lead back to double digits at 25-15, the Lady Cougars final run of the quarter cut the lead to 25-21 at the break.
Alexander might have led at the break, but the Lady Cougars missed 6 of 16 free throws.
Twice in the third quarter, Alexander cut the lead back to one point, Heading into the final quarter, Forest Park clung to a 41-36 lead.
Other Region 4-AAAA tournament news: The Region 4-AAAA boys take center stage tonight with Forest Park taking on Northgate at 5:30 p.m. and North Clayton playing Pebblebrook at 7 p.m. The North Clayton girls, who are seeded No. 2 in the Region 4-AAAA event, have earned a bye into the quarterfinals on Thursday at 4 p.m.
The North Clayton girls have already clinched a spot at next week's state tournament.