Photo by Heather Middleton
DULUTH — The Georgia High School Association gives two trophies at the state basketball championships, one for the state champion and one for the runner-up, and the size of each trophy makes it easy to distinguish who gets which one.
When Ashlee Cole shuffled out of the Forest Park locker room with her shoulders slumped and her eyes straining to hold back tears, she reluctantly held a glistening silver trophy that was the wrong size. That was the reward for the sixth-ranked Lady Panthers in a 55-45 loss to third-ranked Fayette County in the Class AAAA girls' basketball championship game Friday at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
"I told them this is nothing to hand your head about," Forest Park coach Steven Cole said. "This is something to celebrate. You ended up at the top. I want them to feel good about themselves and not hang their heads."
Forest Park perhaps dug itself too great a hole during a putrid first half. The Lady Panthers (26-6) shot just 17.4 percent (4 for 23), committed 12 turnovers and allowed Fayette County to penetrate to the basket at will. Senior center Keyonna Allen went out of the game with 59.9 seconds left in the first quarter with a knee injury and never returned, finishing the game with just two points and one rebound.
Meanwhile, Fayette County (27-5) closed the half on a 14-0 run to build a 32-13 halftime lead.
"We'd been down before like this," senior Nikki Wilson said. "We thought we could do it again if we just picked it up."
Said Steven Cole: "I just told them (at halftime) that right now the score didn't matter. What mattered was just finishing with respect."
Steven Cole yet again made a defensive tweak in the second half, just as he did in Forest Park's 56-47 come-from-behind victory over previously undefeated Douglas County in the semifinals Wednesday. Against Douglas County, the Lady Panthers went to a 2-2-1 full-court defense to pull out the win. On Friday, Forest Park went to its patent man-to-man full-court defense it employed all season.
Fayette County quickly unraveled. Lady Panthers sophomore Raven Wynn, who scored all 12 of her points in the second half, made two free throws to cut Fayette County's lead to 38-27 at the end of the third quarter. Wynn then made five free throws, Ashlee Cole converted a three-point play and Kayla Potts made a driving floater during a 13-4 run that cut Fayette County's lead to 45-42 with 3:20 remaining in the game.
After forcing just five Fayette County turnovers in the first half, Forest Park forced 21 in the second and renewed hope for its first state title since defeating Cherokee in the Class AAA championship game in 1970.
"I think once again we started out timid," Steven Cole said. "Maybe that was a coaching mistake that we started out playing a zone. We wanted to stop dribble penetration, but what we really should have done was come out and play our game of pressure basketball."
Said Ashlee Cole: "We really wanted to come back and win, so we knew we had to play tough defense and just keep on playing. We couldn't give up."
Fayette County's stars took over down the stretch. Lady Tigers senior and Connecticut signee Brianna Banks drove the basket and flipped a pass to fellow senior and South Carolina signee Elem Ibiam for a lay-up. After two free throws Potts, Banks went coast to coast for a lay-up and 49-44 lead.
Banks led Fayette County with 14 points, five assists, two steals and two blocks, while the 6-foot-4 Ibiam finished two blocks shy of a triple-double with 11 points, 16 rebounds and eight blocks. Keyondra Jenkins added 10 points, seven rebounds and four steals.
Ashlee Cole led Forest Park with 13 points, but her 5 of 21 shooting performance was emblematic of the Lady Panthers' shooting woes. Forest Park shot just 16.7 percent (11 for 66) for the game and made just 3 of 24 three-pointers. Wilson played all 32 minutes with Allen injured, scoring nine points and grabbing 18 rebounds.
"Our shots just weren't falling," Wilson said. "We should have kept fighting harder. ... If we could've got a couple more turnovers, the game probably would've gone our way."