Trailing at halftime for one of the rare occasions all season, the Carrollton High School girls' basketball team came out with a fire about itself in the third quarter to ultimately keep the season alive and move on to the elite eight.
The top-seeded and third-ranked Lady Trojans found themselves in a dogfight with third-seeded Fayette County on Wednesday evening, but Shon Thomaston's squad erupted to flip a three-point halftime deficit into a double-digit lead en route to the 59-48 Class AAAAA second-round state playoff triumph.
Carrollton (29-1) rattled off a 16-2 run to open the third period, fueled by a trio of Ansley Barge 3-pointers, and fellow junior guard Taylor Brown proceeded to deliver the knockout blow with three more treys to open the fourth quarter, stretching the lead to a game-high 15 points.
From there, the Lady Trojans sealed the deal at the free-throw line. After missing the front end of back-to-back one-and-ones that allowed Fayette County (21-9) to momentarily creep back within seven, Carrollton went 8-of-10 from the charity stripe, including 6-of-6 in the final 51.5 seconds, to seize the victory.
Thomaston credited his ballclub for its resiliency after struggling through much of the first half, where foul trouble and several missed buckets under the basket resulted in a 22-19 halftime deficit.
"We didn't play the way we wanted early in the ballgame and definitely not the first half. They do what they do and they do it pretty good. We talked to our kids all week about needing to stay out of foul trouble early. But when you get to the sweet 16, everybody is so good that you can talk about keeping them out of the lane, but it's easier said than done," Thomaston said.
"So I can sympathize with my kids on some of the things that were happening that caused us to be down at the half and have some kids sitting on the bench that we needed on the floor. But we've down before, we've been up big. We've been in all situations. We kept it close enough at halftime to stay within striking distance and give ourselves a chance."
Carrollton led 8-5 after the first quarter, but it was the second period where the Lady Tigers made their move, using an 11-1 run to build their biggest lead of the night at seven points.
But Brown's bucket at the buzzer gave the Lady Trojans a little momentum entering the half and the host squad came out of the locker room firing on all cylinders.
Even though the offense churned out 23 points in the third, Thomaston was more proud of the defense after giving up 17 second-quarter points.
"We talked about not needing to give up 17 points in the third quarter. So we did a really, really good job defensively in the third quarter that allowed us some breathing room with the way that we came out offensively," Thomaston said. "Then we rolled that momentum all the way. They tried to make it a long ballgame right there at the end with the fouling and stuff."
On this night, it was Brown and Barge leading the charge for the Lady Trojans, combining for 40 points, 30 of which came in the second half. Brown led all scorers with 24 points and eight rebounds, while Barge added 16 points and seven boards. Carrollton also got solid contributions from Elexus Bell with six points and seven rebounds and Erial Daniel with six points and five boards, while Kim McKinney added four points.
"That's the thing about us. I've been telling people for the past two weeks that we don't have a great player, but we've got a lot of good, solid team players," Thomaston said. "Somebody's always going to pick up the slack and make plays when somebody else isn't making them. A lot of times when it comes to accolades and stuff like that, my kids kind of get looked over because we play such a team style of ball. Like I tell people all the time, give me the best team, you can have the best player. I'll take the best team and right now the best team is still playing."
The Lady Trojans will get a third consecutive home state playoff game on Tuesday when they host second-seeded and fourth-ranked Flowery Branch in the quarterfinals after the Lady Falcons flew past 10th-ranked Statesboro in a 59-36 second-round decision on Wednesday.
Flowery Branch (23-6) comes out of Region 8, which features the No. 1 team in the state, Buford, which also punched its quarterfinal ticket on Wednesday night.
"So they're battle-tested and that region's really good. It's going to take a really good effort against a team of that caliber to advance to the final four, which is the next step," Thomaston said. "We got to this point last year and went down to Fort Valley and came up a little short. So we're trying to see if we can't push on and take the next step."
The Lady Trojan head coach is hoping to see a jam-packed gymnasium for what will be the final game in Carrollton — win or lose — this season before the state playoffs shift to college campuses across the state.
"Hopefully, we can get the community in here and help push this team on through. Because they deserve it. These girls just continue to do what they do. We get doubted all the time. I think sometimes people take for granted what they do. To be 29-1 at this point, we've had really good records the past four or five years and for some people it's just an expectation," Thomaston said.
"But sometimes you've got to give credit where it's due and these kids need to get a little bit more. It's OK to pat these girls on the back and they deserve it. They don't ask for it, but they deserve it. It's a great group of kids and I'm just glad we're able to be in this situation and glad my seniors are able to prolong their high school careers. Now we're going to give it our best shot next Tuesday night.
Story by Corey Cusick
Reprinted from Times-Georgian