By Brian Paglia
DULUTH - The Southwest DeKalb girls were expected to win this game. They have a proven lineup, a seasoned coach and an aura of invincibility.
They can play mortal for a quarter, give the opposition a chance to enjoy the moment, but soon the ruse is over.
With a 14-point lead and two minutes left in the Class AAAA semifinals Wednesday, Southwest DeKalb's work appeared completed. Forest Park girls coach Steven Cole pulled his starters, feeling they had little energy left from a season of performing beyond expectations to mount a comeback. In respect, Southwest DeKalb coach Kathy Richey-Walton did the same.
It was fitting, perhaps, that an eccentric collection of roster names on the court produced one final moment no one expected. When sophomore Cydni Bivins inbounded the ball, hid behind a screen and drained a 3, Southwest DeKalb's lead shrunk to four and both coaches had starters waiting to re-enter the game. The ruse had lost some of its effect.
Maybe Southwest DeKalb was never anxious during Forest Park's improbable comeback attempt. If it was, Richey-Walton never showed it, leaning back in her chair on the sideline, interrupting her stoic stare only to assemble her pieces on the court. Southwest DeKalb senior Kayla Lewis hit two free throws with 17 seconds left that sealed the 61-55 defeat for Forest Park and began the focus toward next season.
Southwest DeKalb (26-4) will play for its third straight state championship Friday against Northwest Whitfield (29-3), which defeated Dutchtown, 75-56, earlier Wednesday.
For Forest Park (24-7), the pressure now begins.
"The real pressure comes next year," Cole said. "Can you repeat what you did (this) year with only one senior?"
Forest Park will not want to repeat some facets of its performance Wednesday - the 19 turnovers, the rebounding advantage (37-25) that yielded a minimal impact. Juniors Keyona Allen and Nikki Wilson and sophomore Lisa Pease combined for 27 rebounds and four blocks, but putbacks were often confronted by Southwest DeKalb's Lewis and Chyna Miley, who together blocked nine shots.
"They were tough," said Allen, who finished with nine points and 11 rebounds. "We did the best we could."
Indeed, Lewis was a difference in the second half for Southwest DeKalb. The senior committed to Florida scored 20 of her game-high 25 points in the second half, including six straight in the third quarter to give her team a 43-31 lead.
"(Lewis) wanted to take control of the game," Cole said. "She dominated inside as far as offensively."
Lewis began to emerge during the second quarter, and so did Southwest DeKalb. It turned on its patent full-court pressure defense, trapping Forest Park often and vigorously, and Forest Park wilted a bit. The teams entered the second quarter tied at 9. Three minutes in, Southwest DeKalb had gone on a 12-0 run.
"We didn't handle their pressure when we needed to," Cole said. "When we had chances to score with two on one, we didn't convert."
Given the circumstances, though, Forest Park perhaps put the basketball community on notice for next season. Whereas Southwest DeKalb had eight seniors and two Division I signees, Forest Park had just one senior (Veronica Carmichael) and a group of talent. Whereas Southwest DeKalb had back-to-back state championships not far in the rearview mirror, Forest Park was in the semifinals for the first time since 1970.
"We made it all the way to the Final Four," Ashlee Cole said. "Even though we lost, I'm still proud of our team, because we fought hard at the end."
"It was overwhelming," Allen said. "We wanted to get here just to prove everybody wrong."
"It felt great," Wilson said. "For us to make it this far was good. We played hard, we just didn't come out on top."
No one expected Forest Park to come out on top this year. But the consensus after the game was expectations have increased swiftly, even immediately.
"We feel like we can win it next year," Wilson said. "We got this close this year. Maybe we can come out on top next year."
"I feel like we're going to come back twice as hard," Allen said. "Whoever we've got to beat to get back, we're going to beat."