Photo by Heather Middleton
By Derrick Mahone
With a roster filled with talented and experienced upperclassmen, it was a freshman that showed a lot of poise when the No. 6 Forest Park needed a boost.
Freshman Kayla Potts connected on all six of her late fourth-quarter free throws to help the Lady Panthers with a 62-51 win at North Clayton Tuesday in a Region 4-AAAA game.
Potts finished with 18 points, including 12 in the second half, as Forest Park pulled away from a closely contested game to clinch the top seed in next week's region tournament.
"She had a strong second half of the game," Forest Park coach Steven Cole said. "She was unbelievable. We have so much confidence in her, and she came through in a big way. She gave us a spark."
Forest Park trailed after the first quarter (12-7), but pulled away in the second to take a 26-20 halftime lead. The Lady Panthers, who extended their 11-game win streak, outscored North Clayton 10-3 in the first four minutes of the third for a 36-23 lead as Nikki Wilson and Potts scored four points each.
"Kayla is a big part of this team," said Wilson, who finished with eight points. "She really came through in the clutch. She stepped up and took on some big responsibility for us."
Ashlee Cole finished with a game-high 20 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter.
With the win, Forest Park improved to 19-5 overall and 17-0 in the region as North Clayton dropped to 14-5 and 12-3. By clinching the top seed in the region tournament, Forest Park will automatically get into one of the semifinals brackets. They have already clinched a spot in the state playoffs, which start later this month.
"One of our goals was to get back to state," Steven Cole said. "If we have an undefeated regular season in the region that is good. We want to be region champions."
Forest Park closes out the regular season Friday at home against Mount Zion. It will be a rematch from last week's game that the Lady Panthers won 71-29 on the road.
North Clayton was led by Ariele Thomas, who had 17 points while Miranda Cantrell finished with 11 points. In the first meeting, Forest Park won 70-29 on Jan. 22 at home.
Cantrell said the biggest difference in the scoring this time was that Thomas was able to play. In the last meeting, Thomas was away on a college visit.
"I would like to say that Ariele was a big factor," Cantrell said. "We were able to handle their pressure. She is one of our main ballhandlers."
Forest Park 61, North Clayton 58: Malikki Priester hit four free throws and Darius Carmichael connected on two in the last 39 seconds of the game to help seal the win for the Panthers, who have now won five of their last six games, including three in a row.
North Clayton junior Marcus Hunt almost tied the game at the buzzer but a long 3-point attempt hit the back of the rim. The 6-foot-5 forward finished with a game-high 18 points.
Down 29-12 at the halftime, the Eagles outscored Forest Park 23-14 in the third to pull back in the game. Hunt hit a jumper with 41 seconds remaining in the game as North Clayton trailed 55-53.
Sophomore Stefan Bradley, who finished with 13 points, all in the fourth quarter, kept the Eagles in the game. He made all three of his 3-point attempts, including one as the Eagles trailed 57-56 with 22 seconds remaining.
North Clayton trailed 59-58 after sophomore Georgia Days made a jumper with seconds remaining. However, Priester connected on two free throws with :01.2 seconds remaining as Forest Park held a 61-58 lead. On the ensuing possession, Hunt's near midcourt 3-pointer missed at the buzzer.
"We are playing real good right now as the tournament is coming up," Panther coach Antonio Wade said. "The team has bought into what I've been saying all season about defense. We are now more patience on offense."