Photo by Heather Middleton
DULUTH -- Fayette County made it look so easy in the first half.
On the way to a 19-point halftime lead, it seemed as the Georgia High School Association could start engraving the Lady Tigers name on the Class AAAA championship trophy.
Then, Forest Park, with the help of sophomore Raven Wynn, turned up the defensive pressure. After going the first two quarters with only seven turnovers, Forest Park's fullcourt pressure defense forced the third-ranked Lady Tigers into 21 second-half turnovers.
Forest Park's comeback effort came up just short inside the Arena at Gwinnett Center Friday, but the Lady Panthers had nothing to be ashamed of despite its 55-45 loss Friday.
For the last two seasons, the Forest Park girls' basketball team has been a big inspiration for the school, community and county.
"I'm so proud of this group of girls," Forest Park first-year principal Derrick Manning said. "They have brought a lot of pride to the school.
They are a class group."
So it wasn't a surprise that the team would make a big comeback effort.
At halftime, coach Steven Cole told the team to forget the score (32-13), but play with some pride.
The team took it to heart.
They cut the lead to three, 45-42, before Fayette County's superior size and talent again took over. But as Cole said to a teary-eyed group of teenagers during his postgame talk, they had nothing to feel back about.
"At halftime, I told them the score didn't matter, they should finish with some pride, some respect," Cole said. "I wanted them to end the game with some respect."
They nearly ended it with the championship trophy. The Lady Panthers just ran out of time, and probably a little gas.
"I felt good about the way we were able to comeback," Forest Park senior Nikki Wilson said. "I just wish we had played a little better in the first half."
Cole took a little blame for that. If he had to do it over, Cole would have applied pressure defense early in the game. Instead, Forest Park sat back in its 2-3 zone defense. The Lady Panthers didn't have anyone to match-up with Fayette County's 6-foot-4 center Elem Ibiam, a South Carolina signee. She finished with 11 points, 16 rebounds and eight blocked shots.
However, Wilson give it a big effort with nine points and 18 rebounds in 32 minutes. She was the only player to play the entire game on either team.
If the Lady Panthers are to make it to the Final Four next season for a third straight time, they will need to replace five seniors, three of which were starters. Wilson, a selfless unsung hero on the team, will be greatly missed.
Cole is extremely close to this senior class, because he has known most of them since they they were eight-years-old.
"I'm extremely proud of these seniors," Cole said. "I've know them for a long time. It's like I will be having five daughters graduating."
But the legacy they have left will be long felt in the Forest Park community.
"Our girls really worked hard during the summer to get to this point," Cole said. "This is something to celebrate, not hang our head about."
Derrick Mahone covers sports for the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.