FORT VALLEY – The minute after the Forest Park girls basketball team lost to Southwest DeKalb in the Class AAAA semifinals last season, expectations were placed on the Lady Panthers, and the pressure to fulfill them began.
With virtually its entire roster intact, Forest Park knew it had the experience to find its way back to Gwinnett Arena and the semifinals, knew that no moment would be too overwhelming, that fulfilling expectations was a matter of execution and poise.
And when Forest Park encountered travails Friday against eighth-ranked Statesboro at Fort Valley State – when the Lady Blue Devils smothered the Lady Panthers in a humbling third quarter and center Alisa Jenkins made putback after putback – Forest Park's experience came through with a little help from two of its newest additions.
Freshman Tiffany Wilson hit a driving lay-up to give Forest Park the lead for good in the fourth quarter, and freshman Kayla Potts and junior Ashlee Cole made 7 of 8 free throws down the stretch to give the Lady Panthers a 47-41 victory over Statesboro and return trip to the semifinals.
Forest Park (25-5) will face No. 1 Douglas County (30-0), a 61-50 winner over Miller Grove, on Wednesday at 4 p.m. at the Gwinnett Arena.
"I've been impressed with (Potts and Wilson) all year," Forest Park coach Steven Cole said. "I think they played with a lot of maturity. They haven't been playing like a freshman."
Wilson and Potts were in middle school when Forest Park defeated Statesboro 50-44 last season in Fort Valley to make a surprise run to the semifinals. Potts seized the starting point guard role this season, while Wilson played sparingly throughout the regular season.
But after Statesboro freshman forward Shanqwa Buie made two free throws eight seconds into the fourth quarter to give the Lady Blue Devils a 27-26 lead, Wilson and Potts stepped up.
On the following possession, Wilson got the ball near the free throw line, pump-faked and drove to the basket for an easy lay-up. It was Wilson's only points of the game, but it began an 8-0 run that gave Forest Park control of the game.
"I just wanted to make the shot and get back on defense," Wilson said.
"To make a shot like that when we're down one point that late in the game, I'm proud of her," Steven Cole said.
Potts was at the controls during Forest Park's run. After Wilson's lay-up, Potts found Raven Wynn and Ashlee Cole on back-to-back possessions that led to 3-pointers and extended Forest Park's lead to 33-26.
"I was a little nervous at first," Potts said, "but once the game got started I got comfortable and just tried to help pull out the win."
After holding Statesboro (26-4) to just three points in the second quarter to build a 21-14 halftime lead, Forest Park succumbed to the Lady Blue Devils' 2-2-1 pressure defense. Forest Park didn't score its first basket of the second half until Potts drove into the lane for a floater with 1:46 left in the third quarter. The Lady Panthers were held to four points in the quarter, while Jenkins began to emerge after a scoreless first half.
Statesboro's dynamic junior center scored all of her 16 points in the second half to go along with 11 rebounds and two blocks. Her backdoor lay-up midway through the fourth quarter cut Forest Park's lead to 33-30.
"(Jenkins) was tough, but I thought we played her pretty good for the most part," forward Nikki Wilson said. "We could've gotten a few more rebounds and boxed a little more, but for the most part we played pretty good."
Indeed, the Lady Panthers calmly sank free throws down the stretch and neutralized Jenkins. Buie was the only other Lady Blue Devil in double figures with 12 points.
Ashlee Cole led Forest Park with 20 points, while Potts had 11 points, seven rebounds and three steals.
"I'm so happy to be back in the Final Four again," Ashlee Cole said. "We're going to keep playing hard until we make the championship."