No. 5 Forest Park came into Tuesday's Class AAAAA girls state tournament Elite 8 matchup against homestanding Hardaway a favorite over the Lady Hawks and it wasn't hard to see why. The Lady Panthers were quick, athletic, had a lot of size and could shoot the basketball from both inside and behind the 3-point line.
Those things didn't matter to Hardaway, though, as the Lady Hawks battled Forest Park for four-plus quarters before bowing, 51-44, in overtime. The Lady Panthers (24-7) advance to the Final Four at Kennesaw State, where they will face either Stephenson or Southwest DeKalb Saturday at 7 p.m.
"Nobody expected us to be here," said Hardaway coach Kendall Mills, whose team was in the Elite 8 for the first time since 2009. "We've played really gutsy down the stretch of this season and into the playoffs. We've played two overtime games in the past week. We won one and we lost one. We just happened to lose the game that would've sent us on to the Final Four."
The momentum of the game shifted for good with 2:56 to go in overtime, when Tiffany Wilson converted a three-point play to give Forest Park a 44-41 lead. Lakeiya McElroy made a free throw with 1:56 remaining to get the Lady Hawks (19-10) back to within 44-42, but Hardaway never got a chance to tie the game or take the lead.
However, Mills said it was another point earlier in the extra period that he felt like the game turned in Forest Park's favor.
"When (Shaunice Bennett) fouled out (with 3:32 to go in overtime), that really hurt us," said Mills. "She was able to get around them and I didn't feel like they could guard her for 32 minutes. Her last two fouls came on the defensive end when she was out of position and got caught reaching. That really hurt us because she's our motor and our workhorse. It's going to be tough to find a point guard to replace her."
Even though Forest Park led for most of regulation, the Lady Panthers never led by more than four points after halftime and Hardaway had a chance to win the game in regulation. Following a foul on the Lady Panthers with 54.4 seconds to go, Hardaway held the ball and ran down the clock in hopes of getting the final shot. However, the Lady Hawks turned the ball over and the Lady Panthers got the final shot of regulation, but Kayla Potts missed a layup to send the game to overtime tied at 39.
"We had the ball last and just turned it over," said Mills. "The girl drove the ball down the lane and we had somebody open in the corner. I told my girl who had the ball, 'You don't have to be a hero.' This is a game where the kids are going to go home and think about what they did right and what they did wrong. Hopefully, the younger players will learn from what they did wrong and come back better next season."
Potts led Forest Park with 17 points, 10 of which came in the second half and overtime. Breasia McElrath added 13 for the Lady Panthers. Alexcia McNeal was the high scorer for the Lady Hawks with 13, followed by McElroy (11) and Jamila Burgos (10).
"Unforced turnovers and free throws are what cost us," said Mills, whose team made just 6-of-18 (33.3 percent) from the free-throw line. "I tell the kids that after the other team scores, you can run the baseline. But they don't think about it. As for free throws, it's a mental thing. You just have to get into a routine. Everybody misses them. We'll learn from this and hopefully we'll become a smarter team because of this game."
Tuesday at Hardaway High
Forest Park 9 11 14 5 12--51
Hardaway 8 6 16 9 5--44
Forest Park (51)
Richards 1, Kayla Potts 17, Thompson 3, Wilson 8, Tharpe 4, McElrath 13, High 5. Totals 16 15-25 51.
Lacy 3, Bennett 5, Jamila Burgos 10, Alexcia McNeal 13, Lakeiya McElroy 11, Pipkins 2. Totals 18 6-18 44.
Records: Forest Park 24-7, Hardaway 19-10; Next: Hardaway/Forest Park vs. Stephenson/SW DeKalb (Class AAAAA State Tournament Semifinals at Kennesaw State), Saturday 7 p.m.