CANTON — The 2016-17 Lovejoy Lady Wildcats made more history Wednesday night in a 35-32 victory over Creekview in the Sweet 16 of the Class AAAAAA state basketball playoffs. The victory marked the first time in school history that a girls basketball team advanced to the Elite Eight.
It wasn’t easy for the Lady Wildcats though, as they had to climb out of an early hole. Creekview led 17-8 at the half, forcing Lovejoy’s offense into poor shots and careless turnovers in the opening two quarters.
Lovejoy head coach Cedric King said most of Lovejoy’s issues offensively in the first half were self-inflicted.
“I told them at halftime it really wasn’t anything they were doing, it was just us not being in attack and us not sticking to the gameplan,” King said. “They weren’t doing anything that we didn’t prepare for. Once we trusted our preparation, I mean, we hit no shots in the beginning. It was just a lot of young, inexperienced stuff.”
Lovejoy didn’t stay cold from the field for long. The Lady Wildcats tied the game at 21-all with a 13-4 run, finally getting into an offensive rhythm. Creekview did score the final four points of the third quarter to take a 25-21 lead, but Lovejoy gained some much-needed confidence heading into the final eight minutes.
“Our defensive pressure was there the whole night, we just built a little more confidence on offense, King said. “The ball moved more, we made one little adjustment and it moved a little bit more. But in the beginning, it was a situation where we didn’t make any shots or shoot with any confidence. We just looked like the inexperienced team that we are at times. They settled in a little bit and realized, ‘hey, we can do this.’”
Lovejoy quickly erased the four-point deficit and the two teams traded baskets during the final minutes. Senior guard Symone Williams turned the ball over with 1:30 to go, which allowed Creekview to take a 33-32 lead. However, Williams atoned on Lovejoy’s next possession, drilling a three-pointer to put her team back up by one point with a minute to go.
“She’s been shooting the ball well at practice the last two days. I felt it for her,” King said. “I’m so proud of her being a senior to step up like she did.”
After a Lovejoy defensive stop, Creekview played pressure defense on the inbounds. The Lady Grizzlies only had two team fouls, so they spent some time trying to get into the bonus. Lovejoy took advantage, and found a wide-open Brittany Smith for a layup to go up 35-32 with five seconds to play.
Creekview came down and fired up a long three-pointer, but the game-tying shot fell short. Lovejoy was able to celebrate a comeback victory after outscoring its opponent 27-15 in the second half.
“Our fight has always been there the whole year. We’ve never bowed down to anybody,” King said. “We know how to fight for it. I think that sticks with us. We always have the will to fight until the end and I’ve always been proud of them for that. The part that always frustrates you is just the inexperience but that comes with the territory when dealing with such a young team. But we’ve had those big quarters all season and to see them come back tonight, I’m just very proud of them, man.”
Genesis Bryant led Lovejoy with 14 points, while Williams finished with 12 points.
Lovejoy improved to 25-4 in the regular season and still has only lost two games to teams from Georgia this season. King said he didn’t know what to expect from his team before the season started, but that he’s been thrilled with the results.
“I had no idea. I always think we’re overachieving, overachieving with the youth of this team,” he said. “I have seniors that play like freshman at times and it’s nothing against them, it’s just that these moments have not been there for them. If you haven’t been in these moments, it’s hard to capitalize on them and have the experience and the calmness to do it.
“But I give them all the credit. We kept fighting and kept fighting and kept fighting,” he continued. “Through all the mistakes and things we didn’t clean up, we left it out on the table and said if we’re going to lose, let’s lose fighting. They did and I give them credit for that.”
The Lady Wildcats will host Chattahoochee (22-6) next week in the Class AAAAAA Elite Eight. Chattahoochee, the No. 3 seed out of Region 7, beat Grovetown by a score of 61-48 on Wednesday. Game time and location have yet to be determined.
“We’ve got to get better offensively if we want to continue this run that we’re making because it really boils down to putting points up,” King said. “I think our defense will always be solid, now can we put up enough points to win games because tonight was a defensive battle. We hit just enough shots to win the game.”