There have been few instances this season when Justin Wheeler has had to call on players other than Carly Winters to get the job done in dire straits.
Wednesday night just happened to be one of those nights for his East Hall High girls basketball team against a scrappy No. 7 seed Lumpkin County in a quarterfinal game of the Region 7-3A tournament.
Winters was yielded to six points, one of her lowest totals all season, but East Hall got 16 points from Jenny Lopez and the No. 2 seeded Lady Vikings were able to fend off a late Indians rally and avoid the upset with a 43-36 win in Gainesville.
East Hall led by 15 after the third quarter, though a few adjustments by Lumpkin County quickly put East Hall on its heels to start the fourth. The Indians fed off four straight East Hall turnovers to open the final period on a 7-0 run. Lumpkin County’s pressure continued to mount on East Hall, as Makenzie Caldwell also converted a three-point play off a steal during the surge. Lumpkin County even dominated the boards while getting another layup to shrink a 15-point deficit down to eight with less than six minutes to play.
“They started to put the pressure on us, kinda caught our girls off guard, which it shouldn’t have at that point in the game,” Wheeler said.
The Lady Vikings coach called a timeout just inside the five-minute mark, and from there, the hosts matched Lumpkin County’s intensity on the defensive side, while drawing contact inside for free throw opportunities down the stretch. East Hall converted half their attempts in its final four trips to the charity stripe to offset the frantic push by the Indians, who were held to a single field goal and three free throws inside the final four minutes.
“We just said (inside the huddle) ‘hey, we’re gonna run this press great, make sure they hit it, make em miss,’” Wheeler recalled of the timeout. “After that, we were fine. We just had to get the ball to our ball handlers.”
Winters along with Maggie Griffin and Tessa Rider were the three to help put the game away from the line.
Seeing others step up certainly gave Wheeler the indication all that offseason work is finally starting to pay off.
“All through the season, we try to work with other players, build their skills,’ he said. “Carly’s our star, but, when she’s not on, we got a supporting staff to pick her up. And Carly played a good game — Lumpkin played great defense.”
The Lady Indians stalked and pressured the Georgia State pledge all evening, even using those tactics to score game’s first points. They cornered Winters with a half-court trap seconds into the contest, triggering an East Hall turnover and converted it into a Isabelle Davenport layup for Lumpkin’s only lead of the night. Winters went on to drain a contested 3-pointer and added another layup off a steal during a 12-3 Vikings run to close out the opening quarter.
Winters was held without a basket and one free throw for the remainder of the game, as Lumpkin County challenged the Lady Vikings to look for other outlets. They got it from Jenny Lopez, who was the only starter to crack double-figures with three 3-pointers — two during the third quarter. Griffin was another to pace East Hall with nine points and a pair of 3s, her second to put the Lady Vikings up 37-20 with 20 seconds left in the third period.
Junior Mackenzie Pulley scored 12 points, followed by Isabel Davenport with nine to lead the Lady Indians, whose season ends with a 9-15 mark.
“I’m just proud of our girls for fighting through adversity, because it’s not always gonna be good,” Wheeler added. “We’re gonna have bad moments, moments where we’re not playing well. But you just gotta pick yourself up and keep going.”
East Hall (15-11) is now back in the state tournament for the fourth consecutive year, and moves on to face rival North Hall in the semifinal game at 4 p.m. on Friday as region tournament action shifts to Dawson County High in Dawsonville.
East Hall’s previous two meetings with its in-county adversary were little close for comfort, winning both games by seven and four points, respectively. Despite seeing Winters drop 42 points on the road Jan. 16, the Lady Trojans still kept the differential within the single digits late in the second half in a 77-70 loss. The Lady Vikings then held off North Hall at home for a 62-58 win Jan. 27.
“We just gotta come to play. (North Hall will) want to beat us, and their girls are gonna be ready,” Wheeler said. “It’s gonna be a good-old North Hall-East Hall battle.”
“I know we punched our ticket into the state tournament, so I know we’re kind of playing with house money,” added Wheeler. …”We’re gonna come out on Friday and see what we got.”
NORTH HALL GIRLS 50, FANNIN COUNTY 43: Kristi House’s last command to her North Hall High Lady Trojans following Wednesday night’s game was to take confidence from this one.
With a trip to the state playoffs on the line, the Lady Trojans overcame a foul-ridden first half and sloppy shooting to eventually pull off a come-from-behind quarterfinal win in the Region 7-3A tournament.
The point differential remained in the single digits as Fannin County clung to a lead in 31/2 quarters. There were four lead changes in the final five-minute stretch of the third period before the Lady Rebels took a 32-31 lead entering the fourth.
The game was tied twice late in the fourth quarter before North Hall went on to get baskets from Maci Gillespie (15 points), Ansleigh Ferguson (11) and Ansley Smallwood (six point) — who drained a long 3-pointer — as the Lady Trojans pulled away on a six-minute, 10-4 run to shut the door.
“I was just proud of seeing us get back to what we normally think we can do every night,” House said.
“You know, we had our backs against the wall, and we had to make plays when we did. Hopefully this one brought them back together. Some different people had to step up that we hadn’t seen before.”
Senior Natalie Nixon (eight points) was another to aid the Lady Trojans (14-11). Hope Franklin scored her final six points from underneath for Fannin County and finished with 14. Also for Fannin County (8-16), Morgan Holt was another to score in the double digits with 10 points.
DAWSON COUNTY GIRLS 53, UNION COUNTY 41: Kaylee Sticker (19 points) cracked 1,000 points for her career as the No. 4 seeded Lady Tigers (15-10) clinched a return to the state playoffs and advanced to the semifinal of the region tournament.
The game was tied 22-all inside the four minute mark of the third quarter before Dawson County began to pull away. The Lady Tigers propelled back with a 19-3 scoring run to end the third period. Sticker padded the run with 10 points, including her only 3-pointer of the contest.
Cadey Ayers was another pace the Lady Tigers with eight points. Bailey Daniel led the Lady Panthers’ with 15 points, followed by Kait McCarter with 12.
The Lady Tigers face No. 1 seed Greater Atlanta Christian at 7 p.m. on Friday in Dawsonville.