By Brian Paglia
Just weeks ago, it seemed Forest Park's season had dissolved as quickly as it had built up unprecedented promise, when the Lady Panthers began the year winning seven of its first eight games with an array of young talent.
But one brawl began Forest Park's second half descent, costing the Lady Panthers three starters and precious ground in the region standings. Losing five in a row, that young talent's development suddenly seemed premature.
But it is the gift of playoff basketball that each team is offered a clean slate, so Forest Park seized an opportunity and survived with a 50-43 upset victory over third-seeded North Clayton in the Region 4-AAAA tournament Tuesday night at Stockbridge.
Where once the sixth-seeded Lady Panthers (12-13) ostensibly wallowed in the turmoil following the Jan. 9 brawl against Griffin, they now find themselves back in the state playoffs and facing second-seeded Dutchtown/seventh-seeded Stockbridge in the second round of the region tournament Thursday at 4 p.m.
"It's been a rough and crazy season," Forest Park coach Lawrence McGraw said. "But I'm glad we're in the state playoffs back-to-back. That's really something I've been aiming for."
The seedings say this was an upset, but Forest Park maintained confidence that the region tournament presented a chance for redemption. They had only last season to look for evidence of that, when the Lady Panthers finished 5-8 in the region but upset Jones County to secure a spot in the state playoffs.
And they maintained confidence in their talent, that given time, the Lady Panthers' depth of shooters and forwards could resurrect its early season form.
That form showed early as Forest Park held the Lady Eagles to one point in the second quarter, going on an 15-0 run during which North Clayton missed seven consecutive free throws. The lead swelled to 17 points in the third quarter, which was enough cushion to withstand a 13-0 run by North Clayton to close the quarter.
"We just kept up the intensity," Forest Park forward Olivia Lee said. "We lost it for a second, but we brought it right back."
Lee, along with guard Kathleen Sengsavath and forward Nicole Wilson, had been among those reprimanded for the Griffin brawl. But all three contributed Tuesday night.
Lee's drives to the basket helped her score 11 and put North Clayton's forwards in foul trouble. Sengsavath came off the bench in relief of late-season addition Kemecia Gleaton (11 points), providing another experienced ball-handler. Wilson had nine rebounds to go along with her six points.
North Clayton, playing without first-team forward Crystal Nwapara, couldn't exploit its size advantage as it had all season. LaQuasha Gilbert led the Lady Eagles with 14 points and eight rebounds.
"The main thing I was impressed with was our shooting in the first half," McGraw said. "We're still not playing good defense. We're not playing good interior defense, we're still not rebounding like I want us to, but a win is a win, so I'm not going to complain too much."
· Mt. Zion 44, Griffin 28: Recent years had robbed Lady Bulldogs coach Dock Gammage of the continuity he craved for the Mt. Zion girls basketball program. His teams would endure the season, but the next year brought so many new faces Gammage felt like he was perpetually starting over.
Finally handed a core of returning starters, and a few key newcomers, Gammage and the fifth-seeded Lady Bulldogs returned to the state playoffs with its dominant victory over fourth-seeded Griffin in the first round of the Region 4-AAAA tournament Tuesday night at Stockbridge.
Mt. Zion (12-12) will face No. 1 seed Jonesboro in the second round of the region tournament Thursday at 7 p.m.