COLUMBUS — Two state playoff games games in 24 hours proved a bridge too far for East Hall.
The Lady Vikings, who traveled more than 280 miles after leaving Gainesville for Friday’s quarterfinal win at Calhoun, converted just one field goal in a sloppy first quarter before falling 47-38 to Beach in the Class AAA semifinals at Columbus State University.
“We had a great run,” East Hall coach Justin Wheeler said. “We didn’t go as far as we wanted, but we took it as far as we could. We’ve just got to seize the moment and work hard for next year.”
East Hall scratched and clawed, but could not rally against the Lady Bulldogs (26-5), who earned their first championship game berth since 2000.
Senior point guard Jacqueline Anderson put up a team-high 17 points to pace the Lady Bulldogs, who led by six at halftime and used an 8-3 run late in the fourth quarter to hand East Hall its first defeat in two weeks.
Sophomore guard Kylah Mize led East Hall (20-11) with 17 points and junior Jenny Edwards added eight.
Ashlyn Ellison’s floater from 12 feet cut the Beach lead to three points heading into the fourth quarter, but Anderson nailed five of her six free throws in the final minute to push the lead to nine with 21 seconds to go.
East Hall missed each of its three desperation heaves from beyond the arc on its final possession.
The Lady Vikings finished the season as Region 7-AAA runner-up and were a win away from their first championship game berth since 2007.
Wheeler will lose senior starters Chelsea Dale and Jatasia Bailey to graduation this spring, but should return a strong core that earned a strong playoff run and worked hard to overcome early shooting woes on Saturday night.
The Lady Vikings missed their first eight shots before Edwards’ right-handed layup finally broke East Hall’s drought from the floor. After Wheeler’s team made 11 3-pointers in Friday’s win over Calhoun, the cold streak was tough to stomach.
“I think some people were a little shocked, a little nervous,” said Mize. “This was the first time we had come this far as a team.”
Beach took advantage of its three days of rest, hammering East Hall on the boards and in transition.
After nailing an unguarded trey on the right corner, Anderson intercepted a cross-court pass from Bailey before dishing to Ilyn Spann (11 points) under the basket for a layup that gave the Lady Bulldogs a six-point lead with 1:49 left in the first half.
Beach is riding a 16-game winning streak, and will play Laney in the AAA final on Saturday at 3 p.m. at the Macon Centreplex in Macon.
“We were definitely a little bit tight in the first half,” said Wheeler. “Being in a big gym, it’s a little bit different for us. We had to loosen up a little bit at halftime.”
The Lady Bulldogs imposed their size and strength in the third quarter, driving into the paint to score three consecutive floaters that pushed Beach’s lead to 31-23 with 2:16 left in the third quarter.
Mize hit a timely three for East Hall a minute later before Ashlyn Ellison’s floater from 12 feet out cut the lead to 33-30 heading into the final quarter.
But the Lady Vikings failed to score on four crucial possessions with less than four minutes to play, which the Lady Bulldogs quickly turned into a 5-0 run.
Wheeler said fatigue played a factor in his team’s sub-par shooting performance. Friday’s quarterfinal was originally scheduled for Wednesday before being delayed twice due to inclement weather.
“We don’t want to play on back-to-back days, but that’s what we had to do,” he said. “These kids in the locker room, they gave great effort all year. You never want to bow out, but they played hard and gave it their all. Hat’s off to Beach, they played really good defense. We wish them luck in the final.”
When East Hall started fouling, Anderson hit five of Beach’s eight fourth-quarter free throws to keep the lead at two or more possessions.
Three different Lady Bulldogs hit mid-range jumpers to fuel Beach’s 8-3 run in the final 3:46 that earned Olufemi Gordon her first championship game berth in her second year as head coach.
For East Hall, the pain of a semifinal loss will take time to heal.
“It hurts, but we had a lot of fun” said Mize, who was the Vikings’ only player to score in double figures. “It was tough, but I just wanted to do what I could to get my team to the next round. I think we’ll be even better next year.”