By Gabriel Stovall
FOREST PARK, Ga — It was easy to tell when Kerry Watson emerged from the Forest Park gym and encountered the handful of Lady Panthers fans still hanging out in the gym lobby.
You could tell it when they began to cheer.
Watson was received as a bit of a hero Tuesday night because the last two points she scored in Forest Park’s 31-29 quarterfinals win over Salem were the ones that sealed Salem’s fate, and stamped the Lady Panthers’ ticket to its third straight state Final Four appearance.
Watson’s eighth and ninth points — she tied with fellow senior Kanisha Tharpe’s nine points for the team-high — came on the free throw line with 4.9 seconds left in regulation, after Watson had picked the pocket of a Salem guard and got fouled as she started charging toward the hoop looking to break a 29-29 tie.
According to the Stephenson transfer, there wasn’t a lot on her mind during that pressure-packed moment. Just the essentials.
“Just gotta have it,” Watson said of her mindset before hitting the crucial foul shots.
She nailed them both, then the Forest Park fans held their collective breath as Salem’s Saalyiah Green’s potentially game-winning three-pointer from just inside half court bounced of the back iron at the buzzer.
So yes, Watson was a hero, but she wasn’t the only one. Watson may not have gotten the opportunity to win it at the line had it not been for Tharpe’s big blocked shot that touched off a mad scrum for the ball that Watson won before getting fouled.
Tharpe had three blocked shots to go along with her nine points, and she said she had absolutely no doubts that her teammate would hit those free throws.
“It was great to watch,” Tharpe said. “I was happy. I had faith in (Kerry), and it was great to watch us put the game away with under five seconds left to play.”
In the first quarter, at least, it looked as if such heroics wouldn’t be necessary.
Forest Park jumped out to a 12-1 lead at the end of the quarter, and looked the sharpest it had looked offensively in its three state tournament games.
But in the second quarter things changed, thanks to Salem settling into a 2-1-2 zone that seemed to play a part in limiting the Lady Panthers to one field goal in the quarter.
The drought helped Salem mount a 9-0 run to close out the second quarter, behind by only two at 16-14. The Seminoles actually took a one point lead briefly in the third quarter, but couldn’t sustain or stretch it.
Forest Park coach Steve Cole said it was his own team’s hesitancy, more so than Salem’s zone defense, that stymied them offensively.
“I think we kind of did it to ourselves,” Cole said. “We went into the game saying we weren’t going to shoot ourselves out of the game. But in the second quarter that’s exactly what happened. We didn’t work to get the ball inside or anything. We were playing timid and taking the deep shots when we should’ve been penetrating and working the ball around.”
As frustrating as it was to watch, the coach said he understood why his team has played tight in spurts throughout the first three games of the state tournament, citing the potential finality associated with reaching each rung in the ladder that leads to Georgia high school basketball’s biggest stage as a definite factor.
“When you get into these rounds, the pressure is almost bigger than playing the game,” Cole said. “I don’t know. You just get to this point and you know every game is potentially one-and-done, and then you win three and you wanna just keep going, so the pressure keeps building.”
The Lady Panthers will face No. 5 Stephenson (26-5) — Watson’s former team — Saturday at 3:00 p.m. in the Final Four at Fort Valley State’s gym. The Jaguars knocked off fourth-ranked Sequoyah 55-53 on the road to advance. The last two Final Four trips ended with the Panthers being knocked out by the Southwest DeKalb team they eliminated in the second round.
But this time, Tharpe said she thinks her team is ready to take that next step.
“I think we can get past (the Final Four) this time,” Tharpe said. “As long as we keep playing hard, getting on the ground and fighting for loose balls and doing the things we know we’re capable of doing, I know we can do it this time.”
In other state tournament action:
DUTCHTOWN 39, LOGANVILLE 38
The Lady Bulldogs reached the Final Four for the first time since 2010 with the one point road victory. Coach April Tate’s team will face, no doubt, its most monumental task Saturday in a 6:30 p.m. tip time against No. 2 Mays in Fort Valley. Mays defeated Gainesville 47-25 Tuesday in its quarterfinal matchup.
FAYETTE COUNTY 58, MONROE 50
Fayette County is back in the Final Four again as well, after getting past Monroe and will play Buford in a 3:00 p.m. contest at West Georgia. Buford got past St. Pius X and high scoring sensation Asia Durr, despite the Louisville signee’s 39-point performance.
SW ATLANTA CHRISTIAN 68, ELCA 52
The Lady Chargers’ season ended against a high-powered SACA squad that will move on to play Calvary Day in the semifinals.