By Gabriel Stovall
FORT VALLEY, Ga. — The Forest Park Lady Panthers are now 0 for their last 3 in state semifinals games.
This time it was the Stephenson Lady Jaguars who put a halt to the state championship aspirations of coach Steve Cole and his Forest Park squad by handing them a 55-44 loss in overtime Saturday in the Fort Valley University gymnasium.
If Cole and company ever feel up to looking back at the game film on this one, two words three words will probably haunt them until next season.
Free throws and miscommunication.
Costly turnovers and five missed free throws down the stretch cost Forest Park the chance to stretch a late two-point lead, and gave Stephenson the opportunity to send the game into overtime.
Junior guard Tamecia Blue stepped to the line for Forest Park to shoot two free throws while clinging to a 39-37 lead with 1:03 left in regulation. Blue missed both from the charity stripe, which eventually led to Terrianna Cave’s put back lay-in off a Stephenson missed shot to knot the game up at 39 with just seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
Forest Park would get the ball back with 2.9 seconds left, but senior guard Kerry Watson was content to dribble out the remainder of regulation.
Stephenson struck first in overtime with Miracle Gray drilling a 3-pointer 25 seconds into the extra period to put the Lady Jaguars up for good. By then, both Blue and senior center Kanisha Tharpe had fouled out, leaving the Panthers severely shorthanded in the extra period.
Gray, Cave and Davion Wingate, a transfer from Southwest DeKalb, salted the game away by making six free throws in the final minute between the three of them.
The loss ended Forest Park’s season at 28-5, while Stephenson moves on to play the winner of Dutchtown-Mays for the Class AAAAA title in Macon next Saturday.
For Cole, you could see the frustration on his face in a game that was nip-and-tuck the whole way, despite both teams having several opportunities to gain control.
“I really just think if we could’ve finished from the free throw line,” Cole said. “You know, we went something like one-for-five down the stretch. Sometimes these games come down to free throws. In the Elite Eight game it came down to free throws. Then, we made them. Tonight, we didn’t.”
Forest Park had two point advantages after both of the first two quarters of play, including a 31-29 lead at halftime. Tharpe secured that advantage by nailing a short jumper at the second quarter buzzer for two of her nine points.
In the third, after Watson and Wingate traded baskets to create a 33-33 tie that lasted for a little more than two minutes, it seemed Forest Park was gaining the momentum needed to put the game away when junior Alexis High broke the tie with a 3-pointer to put Forest Park up 36-33 at the 3:12 mark of the fourth quarter.
Cave then countered with a lay up to pull Stephenson within a point. Then Wingate put the Jaguars ahead by one with a jumper.
Forest Park’s Watson, playing against her old team, came back, converting on a 3-point play to give the Lady Panthers a 39-37 lead with a minute and a half remaining.
The defense then turned up and forced a traveling violation on Stephenson. Blue would get fouled on Forest Park’s next possession, but she missed a pair of those costly free throws that, if made, would’ve given the Panthers a four point lead with 1:03 left.
But it wasn’t to be. When the final buzzer at overtime came, the emotions began to flow as Watson doubled over in tears, and several Forest Park players looked to the sky in disbelief.
“It was very tough because I feel like this was the year we had it,” said Tharpe, voice cracking while trying to hold back tears. “We just had so many miscommunications and so many breakdowns that didn’t get us there, so it’s just really hard for us to deal with.”
Cole tried to put a positive spin on the loss and the season, despite the loss, as he talked about the four-year run of his seniors, the region titles and the players who have signed scholarships.
“When you work with kids and see the accomplishments that we made, and see that they’re getting out of the program what they need, then you can’t get frustrated. You just get ready for the next season.”
But even he had to acknowledge the disappointment of another season of unfulfilled possibilities.
“Oh yeah, the girls are crying in there,” he said. “It’s another Final Four that we’ve lost. Another legacy unfinished.”