By Gabriel Stovall
LOVEJOY, Ga. — If you wanted to measure the enormity of Saturday’s No. 1 vs. No. 2 girls basketball clash between Lovejoy and Forest Park, there were two things to look at.
It wouldn’t be the fact that several media organizations were in the building, including SUV Tv which streamed the game live. And no, it wouldn’t just be the fact that it was a capacity crowd crammed into the Lovejoy gym.
Instead, look to the swarm of Wildcat students that flooded the floor after Anaya Boyd sank the exclamation point free throws with 0.6 second left in the game. And then see the wide smile on the face of Lady Wildcats coach Cedric King.
He was almost giddy as he discussed the environment, atmosphere and — most importantly — the big plays of his stars Boyd and Genesis Bryant that helped Class AAAAAA No. 1 Lovejoy defeat Class AAAAAA No. 2 Forest Park, 55-50 in a hotly anticipated matchup between the two favorites to cut down state championship nets in March.
“We made some money tonight,” King said, letting out a huge laugh as he referred to the jam-packed crowd that came out to see the final regular season basketball game in Clayton County on Saturday night.
“I knew it was going to be like this,” he continued. “God was on our side. The game got cancelled Tuesday, and you move it to Saturday. It’s the last game in town. You can’t ask for a better situation. And I love ClayCo, because that’s what ClayCo is about. I’m glad to see the positivity here.”
It was the most hyped and highly anticipated game, arguably on the entire Georgia girls high school hoops calendar, and it lived up to its billing from start to finish.
In a battle of ESPN top 100 talents between Lovejoy’s Boyd and Forest Park’s 6-foot-4 sophomore Sania Feagin, although it was Boyd’s squad that won the battle on the scoreboard, some may say the two highly touted ballers played to a photo finish.
Boyd scored a game-high 24 points, including a barrage of second half 3-pointers that helped sort of bailed Lovejoy out of its difficulty solving Forest Park’s 2-3 zone, and put enough distance between the Wildcats and Lady Panthers to push their record against Region 4-AAAAAA’s other state powerhouse to a perfect 6-0 over the last three seasons.
Lovejoy also remained undefeated against teams from the state of Georgia for the season. The last time Lovejoy lost to a Georgia basketball squad was when it dropped 56-53 decision to Stephenson back on December 16, 2017. And after a slow start, the defending Class AAAAAA champions showed why they are just that.
With Forest Park clinging to a five point lead late in the third quarter, thanks to a Feagin basket at the 4:15 mark, Bryant would drive for a bucket and foul. After converting the old fashioned 3-point play to draw it to a 31-29 Forest Park lead, Boyd drained a 3-pointer from the elbow at the 3:37 mark to put Lovejoy in front for the first time in the game, 32-31.
Boyd and Forest Park’s Jasmine Jacobs would trade baskets to round out the third quarter with Lovejoy ahead 34-33.
Feagin would make one of two free throws to knot things up at 34 13 seconds into the fourth quarter. And Forest Park’s Alana Denson put Forest Park back on top by two when she knocked down a jumper. But Boyd wasted no time in snagging back the lead.
She did it with another 3-ball that gave Lovejoy a 38-36 advantage with 5:48 left in regulation. Bryant followed that up with a three of her own two possessions later. But the turning point may have been when junior guard, Lashanti Blount knocked down a trey at the 2:47 mark of the fourth which sort of turned momentum in Lovejoy’s favor for good.
“I never know what to expect with 15, 14 year old girls,” King said. “But, you know, I think if we start hitting those shots quicker, it may be a different game. Defense was never a problem. We just had to hit shots.”
Credit some stifling Lady Panther defense to that — particularly in the first half. The zone seemed to stymie Lovejoy shooters such as J’Auana Robinson who went off in the first half of the first game between the two teams.
But although Robinson wasn’t able to find her shot consistently in Saturday’s game, King lauded her for making the types of plays that don’t always show up on a stat sheet.
“Hustle plays,” King said. “How do you affect the game other than scoring? And we talk about that all the time, and she did that. Her shot wasn’t going. We say keep shooting, and we did that, but she affected the game other than scoring, and that’s what you count on.”
As for Boyd, King said his 6-foot point guard only did what was expected by sinking clutch baskets behind the arc and at the free throw line time and time again.
“She does what she’s supposed to do. That’s why she’s that kind of player,” King said. “We trust her and they trust what we do, and they love playing with each other.”
Not to be outdone, Feagin, Boyd’s ESPN top 100 counterpart, did her thing as well to the tune of 16 points, a whopping 21 rebounds and six blocked shots.
Forest Park head coach Steven Cole said that Feagin, despite her youth, is the team’s motor.
“She’s really maturing as a player,” Cole said. “I think if we get her the ball little bit more, we’ll be a lot more successful. She’s the engine that keeps us going.”
Feagin’s play, and that of senior guard Simone Rowland steadied the Panthers in the first half, and helped them push to a 17-8 first quarter lead and a 26-18 halftime advantage. But in the third quarter, Rowland’s shoulder popped out of socket — a recurring injury the junior has dealt with much of her career — and sidelined her for the remainder of the game.
Forest Park wasn’t quite the same offensively or defensively after Rowland’s departure.
“That’s something we know we may have to deal with every game with her — her shoulder popping out,” Cole said. “You know, she’s a big, big part of the team, and that showed. I’m hoping she can recover and get back for us by the time we go to state playoffs.”
Rowland’s injury was accentuated by the absence of junior Joi Reid, a guard who shined in the fourth quarter of the last game between the two teams, helping Forest Park erase a 20-point deficit and send the game into overtime.
Reid is out for the season with a torn ACL.
Cole wasn’t in the mood to use those things as excuses for Saturday’s loss, however.
“You’ve gotta keep doing what you’re doing in the first half,” he said. “You gotta keep closing out on 3-point shooters, because they’re gonna keep shooting the three until they start to make them. If you relax, they’re gonna make one or two of them, and that’s going to change the complexion of the game.”
Both teams are now 22-3 overall after Lovejoy’s win, and will likely meet again next Saturday in the Region 4-AAAAAA tournament championship game. Region tourney action at Stephenson will begin Monday with play-in games. Forest Park will take on Drew Tuesday at 7 p.m. a No. 2 vs. No. 7 seed matchup, while top-seeded Lovejoy will play Wednesday at 7 p.m. against the winner of Monday’s Tucker-Morrow play-in game.
And depending on how the state tournament brackets line up, there’s a possibility that Lovejoy and Forest Park could meet again in the Class AAAAAA tourney.
Cole said he hopes his team’s disappointment won’t dampen their ability to prepare for two more possible meetings with the Wildcats.
“I guess if you’re not winning these games, you’ve gotta continue to be hungry and get up for the challenge,” Cole said. “Alana (Denson) is in many ways our leader, and going forward, I feel like we she can carry us over the top. We’re gonna depend on her to lead us through.”