CARNESVILLE — East Hall was playing to survive and advance. Franklin County was playing with revenge on its mind in the second round of the Class AAA state playoffs on Tuesday night in Carnesville.
Turns out that a long memory is a powerful motivator.
In a rematch of last season’s Class AAA state title game, the fourth-ranked Lady Lions (26-1) got the better of this year’s battle with a knack for hitting key 3-point baskets, creating turnovers and keeping two and three bodies on East Hall senior post Sada Wheeler en route to a 55-43 win.
“We’ve been waiting on this one all season,” Franklin County coach Holly Wilk said. “We had a pretty good feeling that we’d get to see East Hall again this season.”
And it wasn’t just a match-up this team was eagerly anticipating. It was a marquee event for the entire community, drawing a capacity crowd on the home side of the gymnasium well before tip-off.
Fans were so elated by knocking off the defending state champions that the student body converged on the coach after the game with a celebration shower from the water cooler. The atmosphere paralleled that of a state championship game.
“We showed up knowing we were in for a dogfight,” East Hall coach Joey Rider said. “We know this is a tough atmosphere to play in.”
Wheeler led East Hall with 14 points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots in her final high school game before heading off to the University of South Carolina in the fall. Lady Vikings’ senior Tierra Benton added seven points and 11 rebounds.
“I’m still very proud of our team for the season it had,” Rider said. “Winning 21 games might not seem like a lot after winning 31 last year, but I think we had a good season.”
Hannah Strickland and Sonata Chester each finished with eight points for East Hall.
The Lady Vikings played with Franklin County neck-and-neck early in the game, but inconsistent shooting by No. 10-ranked East Hall (16-for-54 on the night) and 14 turnovers made a significant difference in the outcome.
Franklin County took advantage of the Lady Vikings’ slow shooting with a 13-2 run in the final four minutes of the first half. Tied 21-21, Franklin County’s Ashley Harris and Morgan Hart each hit 3-point baskets in the final 50 seconds of the first half to build a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
Hart finished the game with 16 points (four 3-pointers). Harris finished with 14 points and hit all nine free throws.
After Franklin County pushed its lead to double-digits in the second half, the Lady Vikings began to get into foul trouble. The Lady Lions converted, hitting 21-of-28 free throws (75 percent) on the night.
Harris extended Franklin County’s lead to 36-25 with 10 seconds remaining in the third quarter after she was fouled behind the 3-point line. She hit all three shots from line.
Franklin County faces the Carrollton/Westminster winner in the Class AAA quarterfinals at 4 p.m. on Saturday at Mount Zion High in Jonesboro. East Hall’s season is now complete.