Photo by Heather Middleton
By Brian Paglia
FORT VALLEY - After falling behind 11-7 by the end of the first quarter, Forest Park coach Steven Cole decided his team needed something, and he went looking to his bench to find it.
Cole soon discovered he needed junior Cydni Bivins' defensive intensity and long wing-span to disrupt Statesboro point guard Shanice Walker; Raven Wynn's outside shooting and ball-handling; and Tamara Brewster's steady all-around play.
When Bivins, Brewster and Wynn entered the game, they provided Forest Park with a crucial second-quarter spark in Forest Park's 47-41 victory over eighth-ranked Statesboro at Fort Valley State in the Class AAAA quarterfinals Friday.
"They gave us a big boost on defense," Forest Park coach Steve Cole said. "Tamara hit a shot that helped us out big time."
Together, they combined for seven points, five rebounds, four steals and one assist. But their stats were less significant than the intensity they infused in the Lady Panthers (25-5). Forest Park out-scored Statesboro in the second quarter 14-3 to build a 21-14 halftime lead.
"I just wanted to come in and play hard," said Bivins, who forced Walker into several poor passes with her height advantage. "I just wanted to make sure (Walker) stayed on her left side and play hard-nosed defense."
"We just tried to play hard," said Wynn, who scored five points, including a key 3-pointer in the fourth quarter.
It was no coincidence that Statesboro out-scored Forest Park in the third quarter 10-4 with Lady Panthers forward Nikki Wilson on the bench in foul trouble.
For the first 2 minutes 18 seconds of the third quarter, Statesboro was scoreless. When Wilson picked up her third foul, the Lady Blue Devils promptly went on 9-0 run to go up 23-21 with 1:46 left in the third quarter.
Without Wilson, the Lady Panthers struggled to handle Statesboro's 2-2-1 pressure defense, committing seven turnovers in the second half alone.
"When she was in foul trouble we lacked experience on the court, especially with breaking the press," Cole said. "Nikki does a lot of the important things people don't see. She takes the ball out, she plays the point on the press and allows us to move the ball around.
"When she wasn't in there and we had a younger kid, I think we just needed some experience on the court."
Despite her foul troubles, Wilson found ways to contribute. She scored just one point, but grabbed five rebounds and made five steals and one block.
Wilson thought her foul troubles "had a bad impact for a minute, but I think the people that came off the bench stepped up and took care of their responsibility," she said.
With eight sophomores on the roster, Jonesboro coach Dan Maehlman wasn't sure if his young players understood the magnitude of what the team accomplished by reaching the Class AAAA Final Four with a 64-57 win over Hardaway Friday.
"Some teams and coaches never get there," said Maehlman, who was an assistant on the school's last Final Four team 2003. "We are so young, I don't think that they realize this is a big accomplishment. Some players have never gotten to this point."
Jonesboro looked like a complete opposite team in the third and fourth quarter. The Cardinals built a 21-point lead in the third quarter by protecting the basketball with only five turnovers.
It was a different story in the third as Hardaway cut the lead to only seven points as the Cardinals committed 11 turnovers.
"Our decision making wasn't that good in the fourth quarter," Maehlman said.
"We sort of lost focus in the fourth quarter," Jonesboro senior James White said. "It was good that we were able to close strong and get the win."