By Gabriel Stovall
FOREST PARK, Ga. — You may not always be able to tell it by looking at him, but Forest Park’s 54-49 win over recent nemesis Southwest DeKalb was uber satisfying for coach Steve Cole.
“I feel really good about the way we played tonight,” Cole said after Friday night’s victory that propelled his Lady Panthers to face Salem in the Elite Eight.
“We hit on all keys tonight, except maybe free throws,” he added. “We could’ve done better with that, especially down the stretch. But it was a great win. We’ve been like 0-5 against them, so it’s a really good feeling to break that streak against them.”
For Cole and company, it wasn’t the losses to Southwest DeKalb in themselves that were hard to swallow, but rather the times when his team would suffer those defeats.
For the last two seasons the Lady Panthers from DeKalb County were the ones to oust the Lady Panthers of Clayton County from the state tournament — each time in the Final Four round. Throw in a heartbreaking 55-53 regular season loss last year and a 43-41 loss in the 2012-13 semifinals when then-Forest Park senior Kayla Potts ran out of gas, and it’s easy to see why there was a miniature postgame celebration in the Forest Park locker room.
“We were just down there turning up,” said senior Kerry Watson. “But we also gotta get prepared for the next game. It’s not over with. That’s what we do in practice. We work hard and keep pushing.”
Watson, a transfer from Stephenson, wasn’t around for those other Southwest DeKalb-Forest Park match ups. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t share in the frustration of losing to the other Lady Panthers.
“I went to Stephenson last year, and (Southwest DeKalb) beat us three times while I was there,” she said. “So I was in the same place with (Forest Park). That’s why it felt good to win. I came into the game with two chips on my shoulders.”
Forest Park came out of the gates strong and crisp offensively — a stark change from the tight and sluggish way it played in a 38-34 first round win over Coffee Wednesday.
The Panthers’ senior post players Kanisha Tharpe and Breasia McElrath dominated the glass and routinely challenged Southwest DeKalb shots down low in the first half, helping their team to a 24-16 halftime lead.
Though Southwest DeKalb is known for its stingy defense, it was Forest Park which opened up the game pressing and trapping, forcing DeKalb into 14 first half turnovers and holding them without a field goal in the entire second half.
Cole said he could tell before the game that his bunch would come out exuding such tenacity.
“That 0-5 against them was the biggest motivator,” he said. “In the locker room, we didn’t even need to have a pep talk.”
In the second half, Forest Park would further stretch its lead when Tamecia Blue drove the lane, scored a bucket and drilled a free throw for a 3-point play, followed up by Alexis High’s corner trey on the next possession.
After Blue knocked down another shot and McElrath drove in for a score, Forest Park was up 38-24 with 1:55 left in the third. But the 2013-14 Class AAAAA runners up had another run in them, keyed by 5-foot-7 junior Daisa Alexander who scored almost half of her 13 points in the fourth quarter.
Between her and Jada Walton’s team high 14 points, along with a full-court press of its own that suddenly stymied Forest Park, coach Kathleen Richey-Walton’s squad quickly got back to within striking distance. When Walton knocked down a pair of free throws and a baseline jumper on back to back possessions, Southwest DeKalb had cut Forest Park’s lead to 46-43 with under two minutes in the game.
But DeKalb County’s Lady Panthers squad seemed to lose some composure down the stretch, as they were whistled for two flagrant fouls on Forest Park’s Blue, each with under a minute to play.
And with all of Forest Park’s struggles at the line for the night, Blue stepped up and nailed six from the stripe, along with Tharpe’s four made free throws in the final 51 seconds, to salt the game away.
“It meant a lot for us to win it that way,” said Blue, who had a game-high 15 points in the game. “I mean it was hard. The pressure was on me. In practice, though, Coach Cole has a us practice shooting free throws when we’re tired and under pressure, so it paid off tonight.”
Blue said the win also gave her and her team a boatload of confidence heading into the next round against Salem.
“(Southwest DeKalb) came in here thinking they were going to beat us,” she said. “But they didn’t. And it gave us a whole lot of confidence to believe we can take any team now. We just have to keep playing hard and playing together.”
Next up is the Lady Seminoles of Salem who beat Cross Creek 55-30 Friday in its second round game to win the chance to face Forest Park. But opponent aside, Cole’s just glad that his team is still playing, period, after another tussle with Southwest DeKalb.
“This game definitely helped us, but when you’re in state, every game is the last game,” Cole said. “We can’t just treat a game like this as if it’s the only game. We’ve got another game to prepare for.”