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Flowery Branch girls hold off Cedar Shoals, lock up state playoff berth
With win, Lady Falcons (21-3) face Salem on Jan. 13 in Region 8-AAAAA semifinal
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Breanna Locke was none too pleased when she was called for travelling late in the third quarter as Flowery Branch was trying to stave off a Cedar Shoals comeback in Tuesday night’s Region 8-AAAAA quarterfinal.

She wasn’t about to let the Jaguars capitalize off of it. The senior forward made a momentous block on Jaguars senior Morgan Finch with 50 seconds left in the quarter before collecting the loose ball and heaving a cross-court pass to Kierra Knight, who converted an easy layup that helped guarantee the Lady Falcons a trip to the state playoffs.

“I definitely didn’t think it was a travel,” Locke (6 points) said after Flowery Branch’s 58-50 home win. “But all I was thinking was that I had to get back on defense and make a play.”

Knight’s layup gave Flowery Branch a nine-point advantage heading into the fourth, and a cool-headed Falcons defense held the Lady Jaguars at arm’s length to secure a semifinal appearance against Salem on Friday at 4 p.m. at Salem High in Conyers.

Flowery Branch (21-3) is on an eight-game winning streak and has won 10 of its last 11 games, while Salem (18-8) is on a five-game winning streak after defeating Winder-Barrow 39-28 in an earlier quarterfinal.

Falcons head coach Hazel Hall said her team cannot afford to underestimate Seminoles senior Ayanna Mitchell, an LSU commit.

“They’ve got some really good players,” said Hall. “We’ve got to play there, which won’t be easy for us, but we’ll be preparing especially for all the teams we take on from now on.”

Hall said she had seen nerves from her players prior to Tuesday’s win over No. 4 South seed Cedar Shoals (10-17). With few players on the team from Flowery Branch’s last state berth in 2012-13, Hall said she had to reassure her Lady Falcons to calm down and play their game. The Falcons responded with gusto, rattling off three 3-pointers in the opening eight minutes before building an 18-4 lead early in the second quarter.

Senior power forward Morgan Finch (20 points) anchored two 7-0 runs to end the first half, cutting the Falcon lead to eight. The defensive aim, said Cedar Shoals coach Harry Bufford, was to clamp down on the Lady Falcons’ threat from outside the arc.

“The game plan was to get them out of their offensive flow by pushing them away from the outside shots they liked,” he said. “It was definitely good to see the seniors work as hard as they did.”

Two layups by Anetanna Heard (12 points) helped the Lady Jaguars to within five, but back-to-back 3-pointers by Heather Moore (9 points) and Lexie Sengkhammee (6 points) on the next two possessions kept the visitors at bay.

Knight’s easy bucket, aided by Locke’s coast-to-coast assist, gave Flowery Branch a 41-29 lead with less than a minute to go in the third.

Each time Flowery Branch has scored at least 50 points, the Lady Falcons have gone on to win this season. Knight kept that streak alive and well when her 3-pointer on the right wing fell through to give the Falcons their 51st point, and restore a double-digit advantage.

Layups by Finch and Heard helped Cedar Shoals end the fourth with three consecutive buckets, but the effort wasn’t enough to knock off the North’s No. 1 seed, which will play Salem for the second time this season. Flowery Branch battled to beat the Lady Seminoles 53-43 at home on Dec. 9.

“For most of the kids, this was a new feeling for them,” said Hall. “They were nervous, because when you’re in a situation where you’re top of the region, with the best record, you’ll be embarrassed if you lose. We certainly weren’t the best we could be, but we were good enough to win.”

High expectations abound for the Lady Falcons, who have beaten region opponents by an average of more than 25 points in their 13 wins. Locke said she would consider it a disappointment if Flowery Branch were unable to win the region title this weekend.

“We have high expectations of ourselves and the coaches have high expectations of us,” she said.

GAINESVILLE GIRLS 44, CLARKE CENTRAL 43: Kayla Kelly’s 10 points led the Lady Red Elephants in the first round of the Region 8-AAAAA tournament on Tuesday in Loganville. The victory assures the Lady Red Elephants a spot in the Class AAAAA state tournament.

Taylor Hawks, Breana Fair and Shikiya Brown each contributed eight points.

Gainesville (19-7) returns to action at 7 p.m. Friday in the next round of the tournament.

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