FORT VALLEY – Statesboro worked hard all year to force a sequel, but wound up with the same unhappy ending as Forest Park came away with a 47-41 victory Friday afternoon in the quarterfinals of the Georgia High School Associated Class AAAA state playoffs at Fort Valley State University.
The result was a disappointing case of déjà vu for the Lady Blue Devils (26-4) who were eliminated from last year’s tournament in the same round, same building and by the same Lady Panther squad.
“It’s been a great season, but unfortunately it came to an end today,” said SHS coach Jeff Seier. “I’m proud of the effort that our girls gave. Forest Park was just a little bit better than us today.”
Forest Park grabbed an early fourth quarter lead on Tiffany Wilson’s short jumper to make it 27-26 and the Panthers were able to stay a step ahead until the final buzzer.
Ashlee Cole entered Friday’s game as the biggest threat to Statesboro and showed exactly why as the senior guard exploded for 21 points to lead all scorers. Nine of those points came in the final quarter as Cole hit a 3 and a driving layup, then iced the Forest Park victory with four free throws in the final minute.
“Late in the game, we just couldn’t keep the ball out of her hands,” said Seier. “Forest Park played smart. (Cole) was the only one they were going to give it to and she made all of her free throws.”
After falling behind early in the second quarter and trailing 21-14 at halftime, Statesboro dug deep to get itself back into the game.
Stifling defense held the Panthers off the scoreboard for the first 6:35 of the second half and the Devil offense ripped off a 9-0 run to pull back into the lead.
Leading the SHS comeback were Shanwqa Buie (12 points) with two put back baskets and team high scorer Alisia Jenkins (14 points) who poured in three free throws and a bucket off of an offensive rebound.
“We did a better job of breaking down (Forest Park’s) defense in the second half,” said Seier. “We got a good run and some big baskets, but we couldn’t quite do it at the end.”
Buie drained a pair of free throws just seconds into the fourth quarter to push Statesboro ahead, but Watson answered with the go ahead layup and Cole’s 3 just seconds later left the Devils chasing throughout the final minutes.
Both teams were slow out of the gate as neither could penetrate to the basket for any easy shot opportunities. The Devils and Panthers both slowed down their potent offenses, feeling out the defense and looking for a chance to attack.
Sierra Kirkland notched the first points of the game with a short jumper almost two minutes in which was quickly answered by Forest Park. The offensive struggles continued until Jessica Anderson gave the Panthers a 4-2 lead just over halfway into the quarter.
The Panthers built a 7-4 lead, but Statesboro responded with a run.
A Raven Thomas 3 was followed by a put back by Neisha Drummer and Buie’s midrange jumper from the corner with seconds to play in the quarter gave the Devils an 11-7 lead after the opening eight minutes.
Forest Park responded with a half-court trap that forced Statesboro into eight turnovers in the quarter and led to 10 Panther points in transition and gave it the halftime advantage.
With the loss, the Devils fell just short of the Final Four for the second consecutive year.
Statesboro players looked disheartened as they retreated to the locker room following the game, but with only Thomas and Veljulisa Canty graduating this season, the Devils can look forward to another run at a state title next season.
“After the game was more of a time to say thanks to Raven and Veljulisa,” said Seier. “We’ll miss them, but hopefully we should be back here next year. We’ve got a lot of juniors who will be anxious to get past this round.”
Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.