Kendrick High senior Kahlia Lawrence wasn’t ready for her high school career to be over. As she walked to the bench following her fifth and final foul of the game with seven minutes, 30 seconds remaining, all she could say was, “No.”
The Lady Cherokees’ best player — who averages nearly 27 points per game, owns Kendrick’s all-time scoring record and usually controls the offense — was forced to sit through nearly 12 agonizing minutes of back-and-forth basketball in Wednesday’s Class AA quarterfinal clash with Greater Atlanta Christian. Through a missed free throw by the visiting Lady Spartans with one second left in regulation, effectively sending the game to overtime.
In the end, she and her teammates were rewarded. Kendrick fought back from early deficits to claim a dramatic 65-62 overtime victory, sending it to its second consecutive final four. That game will be played against Putnam County at 3 p.m. Saturday at Columbus State.
An emotional Lawrence fought back tears after the game.
“My first thought was, ‘No,’ she said, voice wavering. “I couldn’t believe it. I walked to the bench and couldn’t do anything but cry. But I put my head in my hands, thought about it and said, ‘They got it.’”
Her eyes watered.
“I’m so proud of my teammates,” she said. “They took care of business.”
Kendrick coach Sterling Hicks has said all year that he didn’t just want the best player, he wanted the best team. The Lady Cherokees had a chance to prove they were more than a one-girl show on Wednesday.
Fellow senior Donivan Dyson stepped up in Lawrence’s absence, scoring 10 of her team-high 12 points in the fourth quarter and overtime. Immediately following Lawrence’s exit from the game, the Lady Spartans went ahead by three points. A win looked like a long shot at best for the Lady Cherokees at that juncture.
Dyson, however, scored six points during a 10-2 run over the next three minutes, giving Kendrick — which had trailed by as many as nine points in the second half — its first lead of the game with six and a half minutes to go. That lead extended to five points, 54-49, during the run.
And when Greater Atlanta Christian took the lead back with two free throws with one minute, 43 seconds to go, it was Dyson who hit two clutch free throws with 19 seconds left to give Kendrick a brief 58-57 lead. The Lady Spartans made one of two free throws at the other end to force overtime.
“I just took Coach Hicks’ words to heart,” Dyson said. “He told me to step up, and I knew I had to be the X-factor. It’s great because a lot of people doubt us. It’s could to show we can come back as a team.”
“She stepped up like a senior’s supposed to,” Hicks said of Dyson.
Led by five points from Deja Cheatham in the extra period, the Lady Cherokees finished that comeback to move on to the final four. Greater Atlanta Christian had the game’s best effort from Brianna Cummings, who scored 35 points in the losing effort. She, too, missed the overtime period after fouling out late in the fourth.
“I’m exhausted,” Hicks said after the game. “It felt like I was playing again.”
He said he told Lawrence when she fouled out that Wednesday wouldn’t be the end for her in high school.
“I told her this wasn’t going to be her last game,” he said. “I never thought we’d lose. We don’t have time to think like that.”
As for Lawrence, who finished the game with a season low 12 points, she gets another chance to capture the elusive state championship before she graduates.
“We’ve been here before,” she said. “The first time we took things for granted. We won’t do that this time. We know what it’s going to take.”
Wednesday at Kendrick
GAC 10 22 12 14 4—62
Kendrick 7 18 19 14 7—65
Brianna Cummings 35, Sydni Means 14, Miller 8, Mann 3, Permenter 2.
Kahlia Lawrence 12, Donivan Dyson 12, Brittany Thompson 10, Taylor Farley 10, Cheatham 9, Jones 6, McKissic 5, Jack 1.
Records: GAC, 22-7; Kendrick, 29-0. Next: GAC, season over; Kendrick, Saturday vs. Putnam County, 3 p.m. Saturday at Columbus state in Class AA final four.