A year after suffering a crushing 23-point loss to Laney in the Class AA semifinals, the Kendrick High girls basketball team paid it forward.
Riding a prolific first-half performance, the Lady Cherokees ran away from Putnam County 74-47 in the final four on Saturday at Columbus State.
The win extends their unbeaten record to 30-0 and puts them one win from their first state championship since 2008 and second overall. They will face Wesleyan, which defeated Laney, at 3 p.m. Friday in Macon.
“I know you can’t win it if you’re not there,” Kendrick coach Sterling Hicks said reservedly. “We’re there now.”
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It’s been a long road to get to get to this point for the Lady Cherokees, who have progressed as a team each of the past three seasons and earned the right to play for the elusive state title.
Two years ago, Kendrick’s first with star Kahlia Lawrence, it lost by 50 points in the first round. Last year, the Lady Cherokees had their unbeaten streak snapped in the semifinals. This year, the last for seniors Lawrence, Deja Cheatham and Donivan Dyson, among others, Kendrick has put itself in position to reach the pinnacle of success.
“This is our first time being here,” said Lawrence, who finished with a game-high 28 points on Saturday. “All of us. We’ve never been to this point. But it’s our senior year, and we want to get it done.”
“We want to win it all for the Kendrick family,” added Dyson, who finished with nine points.
That was obvious early in Saturday’s contest, which took on a fast pace from the opening tip. For the first six minutes of the game, neither team could take a distinct advantage as players raced up and down the court to a 17-17 score five and a half minutes in.
Then, Kendrick took over.
Dyson knocked down a jumper with two minutes, 10 seconds remaining in the first, beginning a long run that would decide the game before halftime. The Lady Cherokees finished the quarter on a 12-2 run and extended it to 26-4 over the first four minutes of the second quarter.
By halftime, Lawrence already had 16 points and Kendrick held a 45-24 lead.
“Like I said, last year we took this for granted,” Lawrence said. “We weren’t going to do that again.”
The game speed was a distinct advantage for Kendrick, which is a pressure team that likes to push the game to a feverish pace. While Putnam County kept up early, it didn’t have the bodies to keep up with the Lady Cherokees.
“The other team wore down,” Hicks said. “They did a good job early, they just wore down.”
“That’s what we practice for,” Lawrence added. “We train at a fast pace.”
The Lady War Eagles got within 17 points in the third quarter, but no closer. As if to show her opponent there was no hope of a comeback, Lawrence raced down the court in the final seconds of the third quarter, stopped and launched a long two-pointer at the buzzer. The bell dropped through the net to give Kendrick a 57-34 lead.
Despite the big advantage, Hicks wasn’t entirely happy with his team’s performance after the game. While it gained a big lead in the first half, it sleepwalked through most of the third quarter, committing turnovers and suffering too many blocked shots in the paint.
“There are some things we can still work on,” he admitted. “We were careless with the ball. We need to be more cautious and limit our turnovers.”
Kendrick committed 20 turnovers for the game. He and his players all know that could be the difference against its opponent in the finale.
“We need to play smarter,” Dyson said. “Also, more aggressive. We had too many shots blocked because we weren’t being as aggressive.”
Putnam County was led by Breana Mullins’ 14 points and Ebony Hargrove’s 12 in the loss.
Wesleyan girls 68, Laney 64
The Wesleyan girls battled back from an early deficit to take the nightcap in the girls semifinals, topping Laney 68-64.
Down nine, 43-34, in the third quarter, Wesleyan caught a break when Laney was whistled for a technical foul. Wesleyan knocked down both freebies, followed with a three-pointer and finished strong for the four-point victory.
Saturday at Columbus State
Putnam County 19 5 10 13—47
Kendrick 29 16 12 17—74
Putnam County (47)
Breana Mullins 14, Ebony Hargrove 12, Kienna Reid 11, S. Ellison 5, Hurt 3, Farley 2.
Kahlia Lawrence 28, Dyson 9, Farley 7, Cheatham 6, M. Jones 6, Baker 6, Thompson 4, McKissic 4, Draper 2, A. Jones 2.
Records: Putnam County, 27-3; Kendrick, 30-0. Next: Putnam County, season over; Kendrick, 3 p.m. Friday vs. Wesleyan at the Macon Centreplex.