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MACON — Mary Kate Rushton said after the game that the North Hall girls wanted everyone who watched to remember just how hard they had played against the defending state champions.
“I wanted people to remember us for playing as hard as we could,” the senior said.
Despite the final score, it’s safe to say the Lady Trojans got their point across.
No. 1 Washington County held off North Hall 68-52 on Friday in the state semifinals at the Macon Centreplex, pulling away from what was a four-point game with three minutes remaining.
The Lady Golden Hawks (31-0) will look to defend their Class AAA state title against Columbia at 7 tonight.
The loss ends North Hall’s incredible run, but not before the Lady Trojans (24-8) had a chance to put a scare into Class AAA’s most dominant team.
“I’m really proud of our team,” Rushton said. “We played hard from start to finish.”
Rushton led the way for North Hall with 27 points, including five of the team’s nine 3-pointers.
The Lady Trojans kept the deficit in single digits — against a team that has won every game this season by double digits — until the final 1:30 of the game.
In the end though, it was Washington County’s full-court pressure defense and the offense of highly touted junior Allisha Gray (40 points) that eventually made the difference.
Rushton said she hadn’t seen a faster team this season, which made the press even more effective. North Hall coach Kristi House said that it was one of the main factors in Washington County’s win.
“Not taking care of the ball, that’ll kill you,” she said. “Not being able to get it up and take the shot we wanted, that hurt.”
But House, who played on North Hall’s last state semifinal team in 1991, said that for a large portion of the game, her squad was able to solve the press and, at the very least, contain Gray, who averaged 32 points per game this season.
“Early on it bothered us a little, but then we got in the groove,” House said. “But when they got a turnover, it gave them more energy; it caused another turnover, and that’s how it goes.”
Gray turned a number of those turnovers directly into points, and Washington County slowly pulled away in the second half of the final quarter after Rushton had last brought her side within one at 43-42 on a pair of free throws with 5:19 remaining.
Shonterria Kitchens (13 points) hit a pair of big 3-pointers for Washington County late to finally pull away.
“I can’t say enough about her,” Washington County coach Sug Parker said. “At different times she stepped up.”
Kitchens slid off the court late in the fourth and had to be looked at, but Parker said after the game she would most likely be ready for the final.
He added that although the team had struggled shooting throughout much of the game, the Lady Golden Hawks had found their touch in time.
“Now we’re in rhythm,” Parker said. “I think we’ll be fine.”
Washington County finished 18 of 24 from the free throw line, with Gray hitting 14 of 17. House said that the Lady Trojans made an effort to make every one of her shots tough, but that they wouldn’t completely deny her the ball.
The strategy worked for much of the game as the Lady Trojans forced contested shots and responded by making a number of big shots of their own.
“I feel like our girls left it all out there,” House said. “Most people who watched the game probably turned their heads and looked at what we did.”
Every time Washington County tried to pull away throughout most of the second half, North Hall responded. Although the Lady Trojans never led after halftime, they came within one a few times, with Rushton nearly matching Gray on the scoreboard.
North Hall was in the game from the first quarter.
Although Washington County opened the game on a 6-0 run, North Hall responded with eight consecutive points and the game was deadlocked for much of the first half.
North Hall not only stayed with undefeated Washington County, but for a time held as much as a four-point lead at 16-12 midway through the second quarter on a 3-pointer by Lady Trojans freshman Sydney Cleveland, who finished with five points in the game.
Then Washington County’s full court press took its toll, and the Lady Golden Hawks pulled ahead on a 12-3 run to end the half with a 24-19 advantage.
Gray, who capped off the late run with a driving layup less than 10 seconds before halftime, finished with 12 first-half points.
Rushton, who hit a 3-pointer in the middle of Washington County’s run to lessen the damage, finished with nine points in the half.
North Hall also turned the ball over 13 times against Washington County’s up-tempo defense while the Golden Hawks allowed just four turnovers themselves in the first half.
North Hall had already delivered one of the best seasons in program history just by reaching the semifinals.
This year’s squad, while unranked for most of the season, played a consistent brand of basketball in reaching the Lanierland Tournament finals and then taking the Region 8-AAA North title from 2010-2011’s top team, Chestatee.
North Hall had to get past the Lady War Eagles again in the region finals to grab the program’s first region title since 1991.
In the state tournament the Lady Trojans defeated Pickens County by 10, No. 6 Carrollton by two and then stunned No. 4 Allatoona with a huge first half to grab a 67-58 win in Dalton and advance to Macon.
Washington County didn’t surprise anybody on the road to an undefeated regular season and a trip back to Macon. Entering Friday’s game against North Hall the Lady Golden Hawks had won 62 games straight, dating back to the 2009-2010 season.