By Derrick Mahone
Lovejoy coach Rick Francis would be the first to point out that Tuesday's 52-38 victory at Forest Park wasn't a thing of beauty, but it still counted as a win to keep the second-ranked Wildcats unbeaten heading into the holiday break.
"A win is a win is a win," Francis said after emerging from the team's locker room. "I just didn't see us playing with any excitement. We acted as if we were going to a job we hated. We were just going through the motions."
Francis and his players were quick to point out that upset-minded Forest Park played with emotion throughout the contest. On Monday, the Wildcats had climbed from fifth to No. 2 in the weekly gasports.com coaches' poll.
"We came out too cool," Lovejoy junior center Justin Tuoyo said. "We weren't as pumped as we should have been, and I don't know why. We took them too lightly. They are a pretty talented team. We wasn't ready for it."
The Panthers trailed by four at the intermission and only nine entering the final quarter. They led briefly in the second quarter when Darius Carmichael hit a 3-pointer with 2:56 remaining for an 18-17 lead.
However, Lovejoy gained the lead back with a 3-pointer from Leroy Merritt, who finished the game with a game-high 16 points. Forest Park coach Antonio Wade pointed to Merritt's three as the turning point in the game.
"We just didn't stick to the gameplan," Wade said. "It is amazing how one play can turn the game around. We wanted to keep it a low scoring game. We were just struggling to shoot the ball."
With final exams taking place this week before the holiday break, Lovejoy will be off until December 30 when it plays in the Hoops In Overdrive Shoot-Out at Centennial High against Carver High out of Montgomery, Ala.
The Wildcats closes the first half of the season at 11-0 overall and 7-0 in the region. They sit atop the region standings as the only unbeaten team in the league.
"Whenever you are ranked, you take everyone's best shot each night," Francis said. "You have to be mentally ready. They (Forest Park) came out ready to play some ball."
Tuoyo, who finished with eight points before fouling out in the fourth, agreed.
"We have a target on our back," he said. "Everybody is looking for the upset."
Forest Park (girls) 67, Lovejoy 51: Junior Ashlee Cole scored a game-high 29 points as the fifth-ranked Panthers had a brief scare before securing their seventh straight win.
Lovejoy twice closed the gap to five points, but was never able to get much closer. The win improves Forest Park to 7-1 overall and 6-0 in the region as they head to Mississippi and Ohio for a pair of holiday tournaments.
Kim Dawkins and Quadrill Moses scored 12 and 11 points respectively for the Wildcats, who dropped to 2-8 and 2-4.