DAWSONVILLE — Dawson County senior Carly Gilreath and the rest of the Lady Tigers had never been in the position they found themselves in Tuesday night.
Not even close.
As a result, the team that hadn’t been to state in 11 years needed a quarter to calm down and a couple more to get back in the game.
But they won it in the final quarter, surging forward on a 10-0 run and clinching a spot in the state semifinals with a 52-47 win over Decatur in the state quarterfinals at Dawson County High.
The No. 2 seed Lady Tigers (26-5) will play St. Pius X at 4 p.m. Saturday at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, with the winner heading to the state finals in Macon the following week. The Lady Golden Lions defeated Buford, the team that defeated Dawson County in the Region 7-AAA title game on Feb. 16, to advance.
“I would have never imagined,” Gilreath said afterward, as coach Steve Sweat, wearing a Dawson County Final Four shirt, prepared to cut down the net. “In all my time here we hadn’t even been to the state tournament, much less the final four.”
The Lady Tigers are making the trip down to Savannah because they rallied from a shaky start, climbed back in and finally grabbed their first and only lead of the game with just 3:33 remaining on a pair of free throws by sophomore Sheyenne Seabolt. She finished the game with a team-high 17 points and eight rebounds.
With the swish of each free throw through the net, the near-capacity crowd, which had been there for the Dawson County boys’ surprising run to the state quarterfinals last season, roared.
By that point the Lady Tigers had come full circle from that shaky opening quarter. They knew they belonged, and they weren’t about to hand the lead back.
“At the beginning of the game I felt like we were a little shaky — we were playing their game instead of our game,” added Gilreath, who scored eight points, including seven in a row in the second quarter to keep Dawson County in contention. “We just had to settle down and play our game.”
“This was a pretty big game,” Sweat added. “But this bunch, they battle and battle and battle. But you look back on the first quarter and think, I don’t know, it could be a long night.”
Dawson County fell behind 16-8 after one and 25-10 after a 3-pointer by Decatur’s Kori Anderson (12 points) early in the second quarter.
At that point Gilreath took over, hitting a pair of jumpers in a row and then, after a layup by Decatur’s Jayla Morrow (13 points), sinking a 3-pointer after a pass from Allie Costley to bring the hosts within 10 points at 27-17.
“She’s done it all year long for us,” Sweat said of Gilreath. “We want have the ball in her hands in those moments.”
Seabolt took over after her burst, scoring 13 of her points in the second half. She started with a 3-pointer to start the third quarter.
Kacie Bearden followed with a trey of her own for Dawson County, and just like that the Lady Tigers were down just two points, 27-25, early in the third quarter. From there Dawson County kept it close until the fourth, using a variety of defensive presses to keep No. 2 seed Decatur (23-8) off balance.
“I hope they didn’t get comfortable on offense,” Sweat said, “Because we kept coming at them from all angles.”
For Seabolt, the Lady Tigers’ success late had to do in large part to playing the physical basketball a team needs to play in the state tournament.
“We just played really well, manned up on them,” she said. “Our great defense helped us win.”
Dawson County, which outrebounded Decatur 15-4 in the fourth, held the Lady Bulldogs to just five points in the final quarter. The Lady Tigers held star forward Jordan Dillard, who scored 34 in Decatur’s quarterfinal win, to just 14 points for the night.
Dawson County went 9 of 10 from the free throw line in the final quarter to help secure the win after going 8 of 14 in the first three quarters. Decatur finished 12 of 18 from the line.
“I personally think we just beat a pretty good team,” Sweat said. “I’m so glad to say that I had a small part in these girls getting to go to a final four.”
“I couldn’t have asked for a better senior year, a better way to go out.” Gilreath added.