By Jeffery Armstrong
(Editor's Note: The Mt. Zion Lady Bulldogs beat Beach on Thursday night in Macon. Because of an early deadline beacuse of inclimate weather, this story didn't appear in Friday's edition.)
MACON - For the second straight year, a Clayton County girls basketball team will be going to the state AAAAA Final Four. The question is whether it will be Mt. Zion or Riverdale.
The Mt. Zion Lady Bulldogs showed true heart and determination Thursday night, upsetting the state-ranked and No. 1 seed Beach Lady Bulldogs 49-48 in the second round of the Class AAAAA state basketball playoffs at the Centreplex. Mt. Zion advances to play county rival Riverdale Saturday night at 7 p.m. here in the state Elite 8, with the winner advancing to the state semifinals.
"This win feels great. I told my teammates to believe in themselves and not doubt that we could do this," said Mt. Zion guard Shaka Dennison. "We had our doubters all year, but now we are a shock to everybody."
This game was a dogfight from the beginning (pardon the pun). Mt. Zion (18-11) wasn't fazed by Beach's reputation or the team's pressure, scoring 17 points in the second quarter to take a 25-22 halftime lead. Dennison, who finished with 14 points, scored six points in that quarter, with four coming on free throws. Dennison constantly drove by Beach's guards for layups or fouls.
The iron was unkind for Mt. Zion in the third quarter and Beach (28-5) made a run to take a 35-33 lead with 2:26 remaining. Even though Mt. Zion missed shots, they still had a chance to tie the game at 35 or take the lead. But Dionna Pearce missed two free throws and Mikayla Jordan missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
The fourth quarter was a battle from the beginning. Ashauntae Bussey gave Mt. Zion the early 36-35 lead with a trey and Whitney Linton got a rebound layup to give Mt. Zion its biggest lead at 38-35. But Milan Johnson picked up her fourth foul at the 5:20 mark and Beach went on a 5-0 run to take a 40-38 lead. Linton scored four straight points to make the score 42-40 in favor of Mt. Zion with 2:06 left in the contest.
A jumper by Danielle Taylor of Beach tied the game at 42 and that was the last Beach bucket for nearly a minute. Dennison made a layup and sank two free throws and Bussey sank another two free throws to give Mt. Zion its biggest lead of the game at 48-43 with 41 seconds left. Beach's Christy Marshall went coast-to-coast for a layup to make the score 48-45, Mt. Zion, and then Johnson sank one of two free throws to give Mt. Zion a 49-45 lead with 29 seconds left. Beach's Brittany Carter made a layup and after a Mt. Zion turnover, Tiffany Williams was fouled and had the chance to tie the game at 49 with 17 seconds left in the game. Williams made the first free throw, but she missed the second and Dionna Pearce grabbed the rebound for Mt. Zion and was fouled. Pearce missed both free throws, but after a timeout, Beach had to throw up a wild shot as the buzzer sounded. Mt. Zion girls ran to the center of the court, hugging each other in celebration.
Linton finished with 13 and Bussey tallied 10 for Mt. Zion.
"I am so happy for the girls. I told them that they're letting us hang around and hang around so we might as well win it," said Mt. Zion head coach Dock Gammage. "The girls hadn't quit all year and they didn't quit tonight."
Gammage is excited about playing Riverdale in the Elite 8.
"It's nice to be in the Elite 8 and now we've got Riverdale next," he said. "They're a super-talented team and we've got to be ready."