In some ways, it took East Hall an entire season to hold off and ultimately defeat Oconee County in Wednesday’s first-round state playoff game.
With a 68-55 home win over the Lady Warriors, the Lady Vikings’ road to a state championship will now take them nearly three hours down state to face Peach County High on Friday night at 7 p.m. in Fort Valley.
Forced to respond to Oconee County’s defensive shift in the second half, leading scorer Jatasia Bailey (20 points) said her team leaned on the camaraderie and communication it developed through a long and arduous year to earn its second straight berth into the second round.
“We had to try to read what they were doing and play off of what we knew,” Bailey said. “We’ve been working on that throughout the season, trying to get better at adapting to changes.”
East Hall (18-10) used a 17-5 run in the final 6:09 of the third quarter to push past a plucky Oconee County squad (12-17) that cut the Vikings’ lead to three early in the second half.
But Bailey hit two driving layups and a trey in the right corner to earn the win before her team knocked home 11 of its 13 free throws in the final quarter to hold the Lady Warriors at arm’s length.
“Oconee County played very well,” said East Hall coach Justin Wheeler. “They were hitting their shots, and we needed to hit our shots, and that run really set us up. They started putting more pressure up top, but when you take some things away, you give some shots up.”
Ashlyn Ellison (13 points), Jenny Edwards (12 points) and Kylah Mize (9 points) all hit crucial shots in a 12-0 run within two minutes in the middle of the first quarter to give East Hall the lead for good.
Jenna Bradberry (team-high 14 points) hit a long-range jumper from just inside the arc to cut the Viking lead to five heading into the second, where East Hall became clinical from the floor. Chelsea Dale (3 points) hit her lone trey of the night before Mize fought through traffic to put the Vikings up 30-21 with 2:17 left in the half.
“We were all nervous at the start,” said Edwards, a junior. “But once we got on the court, we realized we could go up against anyone.”
Down by eight at halftime, Bradberry and Taylor Andrews hit a jumper and 3-pointer, respectively, to pull Oconee County within three with 6:09 left in the third. But Bailey and Carly Winters (11 points) combined for four of East Hall’s six field goals in a 14-2 run through the next five minutes, not including Bailey’s 3-ball on the right corner with 10 seconds left on the clock.
“It felt really good going on a run like that,” said Bailey. “But all I needed to do was take the shots I knew I could make.”
East Hall made its free throws down the stretch to close out the win despite Melissa Weiler (12 points) hitting back-to-back 3-pointers within the final minute. Bailey said that Wheeler has the team practice free throws for at least 25 minutes in each practice, which has turned the Lady Vikings into efficient shooters from the charity stripe. Edwards hit all six of her attempts from the foul line.
The next test will be this Friday in Fort Valley against the Peach County Lady Trojans (23-3), who defeated first-round opponent Savannah High by 34 points. East Hall has now won five of its last six games, while the Lady Trojans are on a 12-game winning streak.
“Jenny’s been showing a lot of leadership,” Wheeler said. “We’ve been playing pretty well, and we’ve got to be with this road trip coming up.”
EAST HALL BOYS 53, JEFFERSON 34: After a game like Kyvon Davenport had, Jefferson coach Bolling DuBose had to give the East Hall senior center some love.
Davenport led his team with 24 points in a first-round win on Wednesday over the Dragons, while dunking a season-high five times, including three times in the first quarter.
“I just told him, ‘Good luck, and I hope you win the state title,’” said DuBose, who greeted Davenport after the game with a firm handshake and a smile.
East Hall (23-5) has won 10 of its last 11 games and is currently 8-1 at home. Triston Cooper (13 points) added four of the Vikings’ five 3-pointers in the win.
The Vikings will face Peach County (23-5) at home on Saturday night.
East Hall never let Jefferson (7-22) get into contention and started the game off with a 10-2 run, including Davenport’s first dunk on the Vikings’ first possession. His first two jams were courtesy of inch-perfect alley-oops by teammate Jacquen Hopkins (4 points), while his third came when Davenport cleaned up his own missed layup to put East Hall up by eight.
“It was feeling great,” said Davenport. “I kept getting the dunks when they kept pressing, and so I started trying to dunk on anything I could.”
The Dragons cut the lead to one with a Hunter Thompson (team-high 10 points) layup with 1:34 left in the half, but Cooper and Hopkins both hit buckets to regain East Hall’s imposing lead.
Davenport scored 11 of his team’s 22 points in the fourth quarter to ice the win.
The Vikings will play Peach County in the second round after the Trojans defeated Tattnall County 49-34 on Wednesday. East Hall is currently riding a five-game winning streak.