Just when Chestatee needed something, anything to go right, Dawndria Bell came up clutch.
The sophomore shooting guard hit two free throws with 22.4 seconds left in regulation to hold off White County 20-19 and secure the Lady War Eagles’ seventh state playoff berth in eight years.
The teams switched leads three times in the third before Kayla Watson’s go-ahead layup with 6:41 left in the fourth gave Chestatee the advantage it needed to reach the Region 8-AAAA semifinals. White County’s Paige Thomas (10 points) had an opportunity at 20-17 with 22 seconds to go to tie the game from behind the arc, but the senior was unable to get a shot off in time and was forced to settle for a layup.
The Lady War Eagles will face North Hall (16-10) in Friday’s semifinal at 4 p.m. at Johnson High School.
“We just had jitters,” said Chestatee coach Web Daniel of his team, which scored its fewest points in a win all season. “We played jittery, played timid, but we’re a team that was supposed to be reloading. We lost a few kids from last year, and weren’t supposed to win eight games this season, so I’m happy to get this far.”
Chestatee (15-11) entered the 2015 region playoffs as a No. 6 seed a year after going undefeated in region play in 2013-14.
And it appeared that the Lady War Eagles were destined to bow out early when Daniel’s shooters went scoreless in the opening 9 minutes, 41 seconds of the game. By the time Tyler Bennett’s layup finally gave Chestatee a foothold, the Lady Warriors had built a 7-2 lead.
“This was the first time in five years that we’ve really had to fight to break into this region tournament,” said Daniel. “But we had some kids like Dawndria step up big for us.”
Watson (7 points) was fouled after making an opportunistic 3-pointer, then sank the free throw to pull Chestatee within a point before Bell’s fast-break layup on the next possession fell through with seven seconds left in the first half.
White County gave up 14 turnovers in the opening half, compared to Chestatee’s five.
Bell’s bucket gave Chestatee momentum coming out of the half that proved tough to stop for Tyler Whitlock’s Lady Warriors (16-10).
“For us, we’ve got to play great defense if we want to win,” he said. “Turnovers have been an issue all season for us, and they definitely got the better of us tonight.”
Bell came out of the locker room with an early 3-pointer to open up an 11-8 lead with 4:15 left in the third after Bennett (4 points) forced a turnover in the backcourt. White County regained the lead twice when Thomas converted on three of her four third-quarter foul shots.
But Bennett’s cross-court pass found Kayla Watson all alone under the basket for a right-handed layup that would ensure Chestatee its final lead.
White County’s Abby Watson missed two potential game-tying foul shots with 34.7 seconds left, but Bell made both of her attempts on the other end to push the lead to 20-17 with 22.4 seconds left on the clock. Thomas’ designed play was supposed to get her an open shot from the 3-point line, but a tight Chestatee defense wouldn’t allow her an outside shot.
“We had drawn it up with 22 seconds to go, and she did everything we told her to,” said Whitlock. “She just didn’t anticipate that it would only be five seconds left by the time she had to make her move. I’m really proud of these girls. They did everything I wanted of them.”
Passes went awry, plays broke down, shots were off the mark, but Chestatee found a way to survive, said Daniel. After the game, he said he thought his team could match up well with Kristi House’s No. 2 North Hall team, which routed No. 7 seed North Oconee 79-46.
“I think we can play well with the matchups,” Daniel said. “Getting into this tournament was the hard part, and now I think they’ll be able to relax and play to how they can.”
NORTH HALL GIRLS 79, NORTH OCONEE 46: With the way the Lady Trojans were shooting the ball on Wednesday night, they didn’t need to rely on their free throws to earn a spot in the Region 8-AAAA semifinals.
But Lady Trojans coach Kristi House was more than happy to see her team hit 19 of its 25 first-half attempts from the foul line in a dominant win over the Titans at home.
The lopsided win guarantees North Hall (16-10) a state playoff berth and a semifinal spot against Chestatee, which edged White County by a point on Wednesday.
“It’s going to be an emotional game,” House said. “A lot of the kids are friends with each other on both sides, so they’ll know each other and it’ll be a lot of fun.”
North Hall scored five 3-pointers in the first half to build a 42-19 halftime lead before adding two more in the third. Five Lady Trojans finished in double figures, with Kensi Gillespie leading the Lady Trojans with 19 points. Senior guard Katie Sayres added 18. North Hall hit 32 of its 46 (69.5 percent) attempts from the charity stripe.
The Lady Trojans are on a four-game winning streak and have won five of their last six since mid-January. North Hall defeated Chestatee in the teams’ only matchup this seasona, a 48-37 Lady Trojans win on Feb. 3.
This is the second straight year North Hall has made it to the state playoffs. Keller Barks led the Titans with 15 points.
“The kids definitely spend a lot of time (working on free throws),” said House. “Some nights, you shoot them and some nights you don’t, but I’m glad we did today.”
BUFORD GIRLS 85, MONROE AREA 27: Camille Anderson and Marissa Bruce each recorded 15 points for the Lady Wolves in the Region 8-AAAA tournament on Wednesday in Buford.
Chandler Hall and Zikaya Wright each scored 12 points for Buford (23-3).
The Lady Wolves face Madison County at 7 p.m. Friday at Johnson High.