DULUTH — At halftime, sixth-ranked Forest Park sat on the locker room benches pondering how to erase an eight-point deficit and prevent a promising season from slipping away. The Lady Panthers had been out-shot, out-defended and out-hustled to loose balls.
Douglas County, the top-ranked team in Class AAAA making its first appearance in the semifinals, played with the sureness of a team returning to a familiar venue instead of Forest Park, which made the semifinals a year ago.
But two quarters later, the Lady Panthers were back in the locker room banging on the walls, jumping on the benches, filling the room with the euphoric sounds of a mission accomplished.
Forest Park stormed back in the second half for a 56-47 victory over Douglas County to reach the state championship for the first time since the Lady Panthers won the Class AAA title in 1970.
They'll play Fayette County on Friday at 3 p.m. at the Gwinnett Center as the only Clayton County team remaining in the state tournament.
"We're no longer just representing Forest Park High School," Forest Park coach Steven Cole said. "Right now we're representing Clayton County. Everybody knows the trouble Clayton County's been through.
This should do wonders for Clayton County. I'm just proud to represent Clayton County and help the county move forward."
"It feels great," Forest Park junior Ashlee Cole said. "I'm really excited for Friday. We're ready to play."
Forest Park (26-5) didn't appear ready to play Wednesday. After taking an early 7-2 lead, the Lady Panthers were out-scored 17-4 the rest of the first half.
They committed six turnovers and missed five of their six 3-point attempts. Ashlee Cole, the Lady Panthers' standout junior guard, had just two points.
Players said the mood at halftime didn't differ significantly from a regular season game, despite Douglas County's lead.
Steven Cole didn't deliver an emotional halftime speech, just a blunt assessment of Forest Park's shortcomings in the first half.
"It wasn't a really motivating speech," Ashlee Cole said. "All he said was we weren't hitting out shots. We just had to keep playing defense."
"We were feeling OK," junior Cydni Bivins said. "Our defense was fine. We just had to start hitting our shots."
But it was a defensive adjustment that swayed the momentum of the game. Coming into the third quarter, Forest Park switched its man-to-man defense to a 2-2-1 full-court pressure defense.
Forest Park promptly began its comeback. Bivins (nine points) made her second 3-pointer of the third quarter to bring the Lady Panthers within 28-27.
Keyonna Allen made a baseline jumpshot to tie the game at 33-33, then stole the Lady Tigers' inbounds pass, made a three-point play after being fouled on a lay-up.
When Allen made the free throw, Forest Park led 36-33. The Lady Panthers never looked back, forcing Douglas County into 11 turnovers in the second half and spoiling .
"We talked about having games where you can't make shots," Steven Cole said. "We couldn't make any shots, but we can always play defense. We call that grind time. When it's time to grind, that's what we're going to do. We're going to grind, not worry about shootings 3s, but just play hard defense and go to the basket."
Ashlee Cole finished with 14 points, four rebounds and five steals, but the Lady Panthers were led freshman Kayla Potts, whose poise in scoring a game-high 17 points belied her age. Allen added 11 points, 10 rebounds and five steals.
Douglas County senior and Kennesaw State-signee Kristina Wells scored 13 points for the Lady Tigers, while Amadi Brooks added 10 points.
Forest Park 56, Douglas County 47
Forest Park: Kayla Potts 17, Ashlee Cole 14, Keyonna Allen 11, Cydni Bivins 9, Nikki Wilson 5
Douglas County: Kristina Wells 13, Amadi Brooks 10, Viveca Jones 7, Latara Spriggs 7, Christin Mercer 6
F.Park 7 4 18 27 56
Douglas Co. 10 9 12 16 47