Prior to Friday's game against Evans, the words "Elite 8, Let's Do It, We Don't Want To Go Home" were written on a dry erase board in the Hardaway Lady Hawks' dressing room.
It took some hard work on the defensive end of the floor and a second-half surge to do it, but the Lady Hawks made their Elite 8 aspirations happen as they knocked off Evans, 62-51, in the second round of the Class AAAAA Girls State Tournament at Hardaway High.
"Playing well like we are right now is not something we've done in past seasons," said Hardaway head coach Kendall Mills, whose team advanced to the Elite 8 for the first time since 2009. "Usually we start hot and we fade later on in the year. Last year, we started 8-2 and lost 10 of our last 15 games (to finish 13-12). When we started rough this year, I told my kids that we were going to get better. I'm really proud of the things we've accomplished so far."
Hardaway (19-9) will host No. 5 Forest Park (23-7) in the state quarterfinals Tuesday night. Tipoff time for that game has yet to be determined.
Evans (19-9) -- the No. 2 team from Region 2-AAAAA -- started the game hot from long range, making four 3-pointers in the first quarter to race out to an 18-10 lead after the opening quarter. Allysha McFarland made two 3-pointers and Jasmine Stone had two of her own to score eight points in the first eight minutes.
"I gave them some constructive criticism and we changed from a zone defense to a man-to-man," said Mills. "We wanted to stay tight on them and contest every shot. We wanted a hand in their face every time they shot the ball."
Mills' change worked, as Evans made just one more 3-pointer the rest of the game, a trey by Autumn Johnson late in the fourth quarter well after the outcome of the game had been decided.
Hardaway trimmed the Lady Knights' lead on several occasions in the second quarter, but it took a 9-0 run by the Lady Hawks over the final 3:17 of the first half to send Hardaway into the locker room with a 29-28 advantage.
"I feel like that run at the end of the first half is where the momentum of the game shifted," said Mills. "I didn't have to go into the locker room and fuss at them. Instead, we could focus on what we wanted to do. The girls told me they wanted to keep playing man-to-man defense, so I let them go. I had three girls with two fouls early, but none of them got their third, so I decided to let them go."
Hardaway continued its run in the third quarter, scoring the first eight points of the period to go up 37-28 and Evans got no closer than five the rest of the game. The Lady Hawks forced turnovers and turned them into fast-break points at the other end to outscore the Lady Knights 21-8 in the quarter and take a 50-37 lead into the fourth quarter. Alexcia McNeal and Shaunice Bennett did the heavy lifting for the Lady Hawks in the quarter, combining for 13 points.
Even though Evans was able to piece together a 6-0 run midway through the fourth quarter, it only got the Lady Knights back to within 54-45 as Hardaway continued to use tough defense and timely baskets to keep Evans at bay. McNeal had a strong final eight minutes as well, pouring in eight points as the Lady Hawks cruised into the Elite 8.
"When (Bennett) is able to penetrate, we have a lot of girls who can hit the short jumpers and finish for us," said Mills. "(McNeal) can do everything for us, whether it's play guard, play down low or hit jump shots."
McNeal finished with a game-high 24 points, 17 of which came in the second half. Bennett added 14 and Lakeiya McElroy pitched in 13, including a crucial three-point play midway through the third quarter when Evans had trimmed the Lady Hawks' lead to five points. Stone scored 17 to pace Evans, but she had only four points after halftime. Johnson had 11 and Isha Godbold chipped in 10 for the Lady Knights in the loss.
Friday at Hardaway High
Evans 18 10 9 14--51
Hardaway 10 19 21 12--62
Autumn Johnson 11, Jasmine Stone 17, Isha Godbold 10, McFarland 9, Melton 4. Totals 19 8-13 51.
Lacy 4, Shaunice Bennett 14, Perry 1, Burgos 6, Alexcia McNeal 24, Lakeiya McElroy 13. Totals 25 10-24 62.
Records: Evans 19-9, Hardaway 19-9; Next: Hardaway vs. No. 5 Forest Park (23-7) (quarterfinals), Tuesday 7 p.m.