LOVEJOY — As the buzzer sounded on Lovejoy’s 63-52 Class AAAAAA Elite Eight victory over Chattahoochee Wednesday night, the raucous home crowd stormed head coach Cedric King and the Lady Wildcats’ bench.
After the Lady Wildcats topped Creekview last week and knew they would be hosting an Elite Eight matchup, King and the Lovejoy administration did everything in their power to urge the student body to show up and support Clayton County’s lone team remaining in the postseason.
Boy, did they answer the challenge. The home crowd didn’t let up throughout the contest and played a pivotal role in helping the Lady Wildcats reach their first Final Four in school history.
“It was so cool to see them. I’m glad they did what they did, I was very happy,” King said. “We promoted and promoted and they said they were going to show up and they did. I appreciate them. When you have a chance to host an Elite Eight game for a chance to get to the Final Four, why not take advantage of it.”
The Lady Wildcats did their part, consistently providing the crowd with plays to cheer for. Freshman phenom Genesis Bryant was the reason for many of awe-inspiring moments. She finished with 25 points on 9-of-14 shooting. Fellow freshman Anaya Boyd added 14 points and six rebounds while providing tough interior defense.
Lovejoy’s inexperience has led to several frustrating moments for King throughout this season, but the team’s freshman duo stepped up big under the Elite Eight lights.
“This team is so young and sometimes I don’t have a clue who they are,” King said. “It’s frustrating, it’s exciting and it makes my back hurt. It makes it so stressful to deal with them at times because the inexperience kills you. But I’m so proud of them.”
Chattahoochee proved to be a tough out for Lovejoy. The Lady Cougars used the three-ball to stay close, many of which came from wide-open looks after offensive rebounds.
“Every shot they got was off of a missed rebound. When you get second-chance shots, that’s what get you beat,” King said. “Second-chance shots, we got killed on second-chance shots tonight.”
Both teams heated up offensively toward the end of the first quarter after slow starts. A three-pointer by Chattahoochee’s Marissa Gore put her team up 9-8 in the final seconds of the first quarter only for Lovejoy’s Symone Williams to steal the lead back with a long three-pointer at the buzzer.
The Lady Wildcats rode that momentum into the second quarter. They went up 22-11 midway through the period after Bryant connected on another three-pointer. That lead would not hold though, as Chattahoochee finished the quarter on a 15-7 run to get to within three points at the break.
Chattahoochee got to within two points early in the third quarter but another Bryant three-pointer gave Lovejoy some breathing room at 36-29. The Lady Cougars fought back to cut the lead to three on the strength of another three-pointer by Marissa Gore.
Bryant answered immediateley with a three-pointer of her own to put Lovejoy back up by six points at 41-35. Two free throws from Boyd gave the Lady Wildcats a 43-35 advantage heading into the final quarter.
In the fourth quarter, Lovejoy led by as many as 10 points. Chattahoochee made yet another run to close the gap to five on a three-pointer from Marissa Gore. The Lady Wildcats scored the next four points to reclaim a comfortable nine-point lead with three minutes remaining in the game.
Chattahoochee kept fighting and got to within five for the second time in the quarter after a runner by Siena Gore with 1:20 left on the clock. Bryant was fouled on Lovejoy’s next possession, and her two free throws made the score 57-50 with 1:15 to play.
The Lady Cougars were forced to play the foul game in the final minute. Bryant, Boyd and Williams made their free throws to seal the victory and continue Lovejoy’s historic season.
“They always fight, I can never say they don’t fight,” King said. “My thing always is the youth of that team just drives you crazy. We go up by 11, let’s go ahead and end the game because we could have. But we don’t rebound, we missed consecutive rebounds. If we rebound, the game is totally different.”
Siena Gore led Chattahoochee with 17 points, while Marissa Gore added 15 points on five made three-pointers
Lovejoy (26-4) will face Mays High School in the Class AAAAAA Final Four. The Lady Raiders (20-9) beat Winder-Barrow by a score of 65-51 Tuesday in their Elite Eight matchup.
While the matchup will be fresh for both teams, the coaches on either sideline will be familiar with their opponent. King and Mays head coach Chantay Frost have competed against one another in two state championship games in the past.
“The irony of everything, I’ve lost two state championships to coach Frost,” King said. “I lost to her at Carver and I lost to her at Sandy Creek. It just shows you how great she is as a coach.”
Lovejoy and Mays will tip off at 6 p.m. Saturday night at Fort Valley State University for the right to compete for a state championship.
Chattahoochee 9 17 9 17 52
Lovejoy 11 18 14 20 63
Genesis Bryant 25; Anaya Boyd 14; Symone Williams 6; Amber Thornton 6; Taylor Borum 4; Brittany Smith 4; Kayla Brown 2; J’Auana Robinson 2
Siena Gore 17; Marissa Gore 15; Dajah Crump 10; Delaney Burke 7