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North Hall girls leaning on experience
Lady Trojans advance to state semifinals behind effort of five starting seniors
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North Hall's McKenna Rushton dribbles around a player from Pickens during a first-round playoff game in Gainesville. - photo by Tom Reed | The Times

State semifinals

Macon Centreplex

Class AA

Buford girls vs. Brooks County, 7 p.m. Thursday

Class AAA

North Hall girls vs. Washington County, 4 p.m., Friday

Out of all the teams playing in the state championship weekend in Macon, few, if any, are going to have as much time playing together as the North Hall girls.

A group of six seniors that came together in the seventh grade at North Hall Middle have logged a combined 12 years varsity experience as starters for the Lady Trojans (24-7), which face top-ranked Washington County (30-0) in the Class AAA semifinals at 4 p.m. Friday at the Macon Centreplex.

It's the program's first state semifinals appearance since 1991.

"This has definitely been a dream of ours since we got into high school together," North Hall senior guard Taylor Swoszowski said. "We spend so much time together, on and off the court, and have a great bond together."

Even though North Hall's opponent, the Lady Golden Hawks are winner of 62 straight games and the defending Class AAA champion, the Lady Trojans wouldn't have it any other way.

"I love the challenge," said Lady Trojans senior guard McKenna Rushton, who averages 13 points and seven boards a game. "We know Washington County is a very good basketball team, but at the same time feel like we can beat them."

Washington County couldn't be more different than North Hall.

The Lady Golden Hawks are led by 5-foot-11 junior guard Allisha Gray (32 points per game), who has already gone over 2,000 points in her career.

According to North Hall coach Kristi House, Gray scores the majority of her points in the paint.

"We want to make Washington County get in its half-court offense," House said.

North Hall feels like it has an offense balanced well enough to go up against a Lady Golden Hawks program that hasn't lost since the second round of the 2010 playoffs.

Twin sisters McKenna and Mary Kate Rushton lead North Hall with 13 points a game on average, and also crossed 1,000 career points only one week apart earlier this season.

Swoszowski (nine points, four assists), senior Sarah Paschall (seven points) and freshman Sydney Cleveland (six points) are also able to step up and score.

According to House, North Hall has had five players go over 20 points in a game at least once this season.

"The fact that we have six or seven players that can score in double figures is huge," Swoszowski said. "The other team can't take away one shooter on our team and shut the entire offense down."

On top of that, senior Tiffany Hamilton has performed the role of defensive specialist superbly for the Lady Trojans.

With all the pieces of the puzzle seemingly fitting perfectly together, House isn't surprised that the 2012 Lady Trojans have made their first trip to the state semifinals since 1991, a team she played for at North Hall.

"This group is so fundamentally sound," House said. "It's the most talented group that I've coached."

Swoszowski and McKenna Rushton both got on the court for their first career starts as freshmen, then were permanently penciled into the starting line-up starting as sophomores.

Mary Kate Rushton, Paschall and Hamilton each have two years starting experience starting for the North Hall girls.

McKenna Rushton says that winning the Lanierland Tournament in 2009 as a sophomore for the Lady Trojans showed some of the long-term potential that their program could achieve.

This season, North Hall's girls feel like the length of time playing together played a role in winning a close second-round game against No. 6 Carrollton, 47-45.

It then held on for a victory after a big first-half lead against No. 4 Allatoona, 67-58, in the state quarterfinals in Dalton last Saturday.

The Lady Trojans' difficult regular season schedule included three games against East Hall and four against Chestatee - both second round playoff teams - and one against Class A's No. 1 Wesleyan, which faces Taylor County in the first state semifinals game at 4 p.m. today in Macon.

"We feel like playing the better teams was a good test to get to this point," McKenna Rushton said.

House says that the turning point for North Hall this season was a home loss to White County, 50-44, on Jan. 31.

Since then the Lady Trojans have rattled off eight straight wins and the program's first region title since 1991.

Now that the final week of playing basketball at North Hall has arrived for its starting five, the realization for players that they have the opportunity to go out on top has started to sink in.

Winning a state championship has been a lofty dream for North Hall's girls since they started playing together six years ago, but can become a reality with two more wins this weekend.

"We're going down there and going to play the very best we can," Swoszowski said. "We'll have no regrets."

 

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