East Hall’s girls opened the Class AAA basketball state playoffs on Friday with the poise and passion of a team destined for a long run, even though just a week ago it was a long shot that the Lady Vikings would even reach the postseason.
Add to their resume hosting a first-round playoff game against North Murray in Gainesville, and a picture begins to develop showing the strides that East Hall's girls have made this month.
“It’s been a process and just had to improve step by step along the way,” said first-year East Hall coach Justin Wheeler, following an emphatic 61-36 victory against the Lady Mountaineers. “These girls have been great and always believed in each other.”
With the win, No. 2 seed East Hall (15-14) advances to the second round to face third-ranked St. Pius X, a 52-39 winner over North Oconee on Friday, early next week in Atlanta. Game time is still to be determined.
“This is really exciting for us as a team,” said East Hall’s Jatasia Bailey, who led all scorers with 23 points and was the key to a 22-1 third-quarter scoring edge.
Despite entering the Region 7-AAA tournament last week as the No. 6 seed, the Lady Vikings picked up back-to-back victories during the tournament in Buford to earn the right to open the playoffs in Hall County. Now, East Hall feels it belongs on the court with anyone, even though Bailey believes St. Pius X has two of the best players in the nation.
“It’s going to be a hard game against St. Pius, but we’re playing well enough to beat anyone right now,” said Bailey, who knocked down three 3s in the third quarter against turnover-prone North Murray (11-17), a No. 4 seed.
Count Wheeler among the believers in the players he instructs.
“These girls are great, do a great job of believing in one another,” Wheeler said. “And play so hard all the time.”
The game turned sharply in East Hall’s favor late in the second quarter thanks to a nice defensive effort by Eboni Burce, who ran behind the North Murray ballhandler and knocked the ball away. Bailey picked up the loose ball from the scrum and went more than half the length of the court for the layup to go ahead 21-20 with only 1:01 before halftime.
Chelsea Dale knocked down a 3-pointer for the Lady Vikings before intermission to make it a two-possession, 24-20 lead.
Then in the third quarter, East Hall put the game away behind the 3-point line with three straight shots that went in — two by Bailey and another by Dale. The Lady Vikings also scored 12 points off of North Murray’s 10 offensive turnovers in the third period.
“I feel like that third quarter summed up the way we’ve played the last 3 or 4 games,” Wheeler said.
Also in double figures for East Hall were Ashlyn Ellison with 18 points and Dale with 11.
East Hall jumped to a sizable lead in the first half, but shooting difficulty took a 13-6 lead down to just one basket at the end of first quarter. Dale hit a long 3-pointer for the Lady Vikings on their first shot of the night.
Ellison’s 3-pointer from the corner late in the opening quarter matched East Hall’s biggest lead early at 16-9, however North Murray battled back into striking range with a 3-pointer by Amber Shook and a pair of free throws by Emma Gossage.
The Lady Mountaineers took their only lead of the game with 1:10 remaining in the first half with another 3-pointer from Shook. After an East Hall free throw to take the deficit down to 20-19, Burce stepped in with the huge defensive play to strip the ball and facilitate Burce’s basket.
North Murray’s season is now finished.