Lakeview Academy girls basketball coach John Carrick made sure his players didn’t forget last year’s state quarterfinal loss at Kennesaw State University.
On Wednesday night, the No. 3 seed — thanks to a few unsung heroes — performed across the board to not only redeem last year’s shortcomings but make program history as well.
The Lady Lions are through to the semifinal round of the Class A Private tournament for the first time since 2005 after dominating No. 11 seed Darlington 72-54 from inside Walters Athletic Center.
“I don’t know how many times coach said it — ‘Last year we got beat by six players,’” said senior Ryann Moody, who experienced that heartbreak in her first season at Lakeview Academy.
Carrick often stresses to his players in the locker room to get the most recent game out of their heads, regardless of a win or loss. But last season's elite eight game was an exception, as the Lady Lions shot well below 50 percent from the foul line on top of letting an early lead slip against Southwest Atlanta Christian. The Lady Warriors had four opposing players amass double figures, while taking advantage of early foul troubles to send the Lady Lions home emtpy handed in the end.
Moody and those returning starters from last season want to make the most of this second go-around.
“It’s an incredible feeling," Moody added. "I have never been to a state final game. … We lost in Kenneaw last year, and that was a downer. But this year, making it to the Final Four feels really good, especially me being a senior. You don’t want this to be your last game, so you get as far as you can."
The Lady Lions (26-4) will clash with No. 2 seed Wesleyan, a team that solidified a trip to the semifinals for the 14th-consecutive year with a 63-31 win over Prince Avenue on Tuesday night. Tipoff for Saturday’s game is set for 6 p.m. at the Cobb Civic Center in Marietta, and a win for the Lady Lions would result in their first trip to the state title game in school history.
Carrick gave the witty remark that this wasn’t his first rodeo after being told he looked surprisingly calm for matching the program’s deepest postseason run under his watch.
“They worked hard for this,” Carrick said. “They got a coach where if they’re not hustling, we put the balls up and we’re running until I feel good. So they deserve it. They deserve it because they worked together as a team, loved one another, didn’t put one another down.”
As for Darlington (23-7), its season ends after dismissing higher-seeded Calvary Day in Savannah in the previous round. The Tigers got 28 points and seven boards from senior guard and Wofford College signee Anna Claire Atha, who accounted for more than half her team’s point total before fouling out with less than two minutes left in the game.
The Tigers were otherwise held in check, as freshman Caroline Dingler was the only other starter to score in the double digits with 10 points, followed by Kelsey Garrett with six and Sydney Seymore with five.
“We did a good job on the ones other than (Atha),” added Carrick. “(Dingler) didn’t get a whole lotta looks, (Seymour) didn’t get a whole lotta looks. Those are their next two good outside shooters. Other than that section of the game, I felt like we did a great job at shutting down their others.”
The Lady Lions (26-4) started fast on a 12-3 scoring run and never trailed despite experiencing those similar ailments that doomed them in last year’s quarterfinal loss to Southwest Atlanta Christian. They had three starters in foul trouble and shot at 35 percent (7 of 20) from the free-throw line before the final quarter.
But they got a breakout night from Moody, who knocked down four 3’s as part of a season-high 18-point frenzy, and the Lakeview bench to shored up a 17-point lead by the end of the third quarter.
Seniors Hanna Grogan, Christen Copeland and Jackie Allen were three of the starting five to be tagged with foul troubles early on. The Lions got a much-needed boost from Madie Blackburn (nine points), Tori Taylor (three points) and Kennedy Payne (six points), who put up a combined 18 points off the bench. Sophomore Sadie Thrailkill notched six points and snagged seven boards for the Lions as well.
It’s a feat that has Carrick excited for the future.
“That bench won that game,” added Carrick. “Those kids, with the exception of Moody, is the team next year. You know, we lose Moody, we lose Copeland, we lose Grogan, so you’re talking about the other kids. That just makes you feel good all over. When your number is called, you produce.”
Grogan, the school’s all-time leading scorer, added 17 points — 14 in the second half — behind Moody. She made a 3 to put the Lions up 6-0 early before picking up two infractions by the three-minute, 12-second mark of the opening period and sat for the final 11 minutes of the half.
Darlington kept things within reach during that stretch. Both teams went back-and forth at the end of the opening period, as a stepback jumper by Atha, as well as baskets by Seymour and Barnett, cut it to five entering the second.
A bucket by Atha kickstarted a 7-0 scoring run midway through the second period, trimming deficit to one. But two consecutive treys by Moody vaulted the Lions ahead by eight in response.
Moody knew she had caught the hot hand after putting the Lions on the board with her first 3-point attempt before Grogan’s temporary departure.
“It’s not hard to tell that Hanna’s our best player. But we know that we as a team have to contribute to win,” Moody said. “So when (Grogan) went out of the game, you know, I had to step it up. We all gotta step in and do our part or we’re not gonna win.”
Freshman Jackie Allen brought the Lakeview Academy crowd to its feet after the Tigers climbed back within three minutes later, nailing a long 3 to beat the buzzer and put the Lions up 31-23 at the break.
The Lions added another string of scoring spurts in the third and fourth quarters to keep the Tigers chasing.
Consecutive 3-pointers by Blackburn bolstered a 7-0 run to close out the third. The Lions finally found their form from the stripe in those closing minutes, as Grogan converted her final six attempts while the Lions as a unit were 11 of 16 to close it out.