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West Hall girls jump out to early lead, fend off late Gainesville rally to reach Lanierland finals
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West Hall's Anna McKendree (14) puts up a shot after making a breakaway against Gainesville during the semifinals of the Lanierland tournament at Gainesville High. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Flowery Branch girls top Lakeview Academy

The West Hall girls basketball team had been in this situation before — twice in the past week, to be exact.

On Dec. 23, the Lady Spartans managed to fend off a late Cherokee rally to win the Holidays on the Hardwood tournament. And just Wednesday, West Hall turned aside a furious late-game push by East Hall in the first round of the Lanierland tournament.

So when Gainesville seemed poised to erase a double-digit deficit Thursday, Lady Spartans coach Bryan Richerson had confidence his team could pull out a victory.

That’s just what West Hall did, holding off the Lady Red Elephants to win 59-50 and reach the Lanierland finals for the first time since 2000. The No. 7 seed Lady Spartans (11-3) will face No. 1 seed and reigning champions Flowery Branch at 6:30 p.m. today at Gainesville High School.

“I’m proud of these girls. This is something special,” Richerson said. “I’ve got a veteran group that has been in this situation before, and I’m confident in them.”

No. 3 seed Gainesville will play No. 5 seed Lakeview Academy in the third-place game at 3:30 p.m.

West Hall led wire-to-wire and even entered the fourth quarter leading 45-33. But the Lady Red Elephants (9-3) staged a rally over the final four minutes to shrink the deficit to as little as five points, a brief meltdown Richerson attributed to mental fatigue.

This one wasn’t always a nail-biter, though.

The Lady Spartans jumped out to a 15-2 lead, starting with junior guard Anna McKendree hitting 3-pointers on the Lady Spartans’ first four possessions.

“Being able to score like we did gave them confidence and opened some things up some more,” Richerson.

But Gainesville scored the final nine points of the first quarter and cut the deficit to 17-14 early in the second. The game stayed within single digits until late in the third quarter when senior guard Avery Prather hit a 3-pointer and McKendree snatched a steal and finished with a layup on the other end.

The Lady Red Elephants forced a handful of turnovers to pull within 55-50 with 27.7 seconds to play, but West Hall drained its final four free throws to seal the win.

Gainesville senior guard Taylor Hawks led all scorers with 24 points, while McKendree paced the Lady Spartans with 23 points. Senior guard Macy Passmore pitched in 15 points and six rebounds in the winning effort.

But in Richerson’s eyes, what really made the difference was his team’s defense that stifled the Lady Red Elephants when it mattered most.

“Our girls came out and executed our game plan defensively,” Richerson said. “We’ve relied on our defense all year. That’s something I’m proud of, these girls coming out and hanging tough against a great Gainesville team.

“It’s pretty special for these girls to be in the finals tomorrow night.”

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