The Cartersville girls were lucky to be playing at home and even luckier to be dead-even with Cedartown in the quarterfinals of the Region 5-AAAA tournament Wednesday at The Storm Center.
But the Canes luck ran out over the final three minutes of Wednesday’s win-or-go-home contest, as the Bulldogs scored the final 10 points in a 45-35 win to punch a ticket to the Class 4A state tournament.
“Disappointing obviously because you had a chance to go to state, and disappointed because your seniors are done,” Cartersville head coach Cindy Moore said. “We were very competitive all year. The final score is not an indicator. I felt like it was a three- or four-point ballgame the whole game. …
“I don’t have a magic answer to make everybody feel better. We’re disappointed.”
Despite playing at home due to the Cartersville boys hosting Wednesday’s four-game slate, the sixth-seeded Canes showed plenty of nerves in the early stages. Turnovers outnumbered points for Cartersville much of the first half, while missed free throws and wasted opportunities around the basket piled up.
And yet, the Canes (12-14) hung around against the No. 3 seed Bulldogs (16-8). Haley Johnson was a big reason for that in the first quarter. The freshman produced six of Cartersville’s nine points to keep them within two entering the second period.
London Shaw and Lehla Thomas established their post presence in the second period. Shaw had four of her team-high 10 points in the stanza, and Thomas scored all five of hers.
Against seemingly all odds, including a 3-for-11 showing at the foul line, Cartersville took a slim 18-17 lead into halftime.
“We felt very fortunate to play so — I don’t want to say non-composed, we just didn’t play with a lot of confidence — for it to be tied,” Moore said. “Down the stretch, it was kind of what happened at their place. We kept it close until the last two or three minutes, and then they pulled away. …
“I’m sorry that we couldn’t get it done for my seniors. We did compete all year, and that’s something we can build on.”
Offenses remained stagnant in the third quarter, but a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Cedartown’s Ava Allred gave the Bulldogs a slight 28-26 advantage heading to the final period.
Even with the gut-punch, Cartersville put up the first five points of the fourth quarter, including Johnson’s second triple of the night for her final of nine points.
The teams traded baskets until Cartersville tied the score at 35-35 on Naijah Evans’ short jumper. However, Keke Turner responded with a clutch 3, and the Bulldogs controlled proceedings the rest of the way.
The Canes had a few chances to stem the tide, but missing the front-end of two separate one-and-one opportunities, exacerbating what wound up being a 5-for-15 night at the stripe.
“At this point in the year, you shouldn’t be missing 10 free points,” Moore said. “That’s been our Achilles heel all year, honestly. If you look at our record, there’s probably only been five games where those were not a factor.”
With the loss, seniors Shaw, Emily Petty and A’mya Davis saw their final action for the Cartersville girls basketball program. But the number of returning contributors offers an encouraging glimpse into the future of the team.
“We got a lot of folks some valuable minutes, and you can’t replicate that,” Moore said. “… All the things you can only learn by doing it. That’s invaluable. I feel like, even though we’re hurting right now and we’re down, we know we were in so many ballgames. The ‘W’ maybe didn’t go our way, but we were in it. We haven’t had a season like this in probably three or four years. It felt like we were in just about every ballgame.
“It hurts, but we’ll try to build off that in the offseason. We’ve all got to get better, individual skill and some things like that, but it is encouraging.”
While the Canes will return several experienced players for the 2019-20 season, Moore choked up thinking about the prospect of having to replace Davis. The future of the program at the point guard is Johnson, a promising player in many aspects who took some expected lumps as a ninth-grader.
“We lose a big, strong leader in A’mya Davis,” Moore said, as she fought back tears. “But Haley’s going to come on. She’s obviously a scoring threat. She came in the first or second quarter and really hit some big shots. Obviously, we have to have more from her, but she’s going to be counted on to be the ballhandler. Offseason is going to be huge for her. She’s got the ability. We just have to get it to where she’s making those good decisions all the time, not just most of the time.
“It is encouraging what’s coming back. You have 11 on the roster, and eight of them are back and our JV was 10-1. Obviously, there’s some good things here. We’re just disappointed right now.”