LAWRENCEVILLE — In a Class AAAAAAA first-round game that went from a defensive slugfest in the first half to a track meet in the second half, it was one final defensive possession that made the difference.
Duluth’s girls basketball team had the ball trailing by one against Archer with 3.6 seconds left, looking to complete a late rally after they trailed 39-31 with two minutes to play.
But the Tigers got the one stop they needed, preventing the Wildcats from even getting a shot up as time expired to hold on for a 39-38 victory.
“We survived,” Archer head coach Dani Wright said.
Survival is an appropriate term for it. The game was an extremely physical battle, with bodies hitting the floor left and right. This was especially true in the first half, when turnovers were aplenty and neither side could hold on to the ball.
But the offenses finally got things into gear in the second half, and for Archer that meant two players carrying the lead. Cazia Nelson and Taniya McGowan scored 15 points apiece, and accounted for all but two points in Archer’s 14-5 run early in the fourth quarter that proved to be just enough to hold on at the end.
"They do a really good job of working the ball,” Wright said. “They’re really good passers, and they see the floor really well. They’ve been really good for us, knowing what to do and being our leaders. They made plays when they needed to.”
But it didn’t start that way. It took almost three minutes for either team to register on the scoreboard, with sloppy passing and poor shooting plaguing both teams in the early going.
The Tigers opened up a 9-4 lead late in the first quarter when McGowan hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key, the first 3 of the night for either team.
The second quarter continued the same way, as just three total shots from the floor went down the entire frame. It was the Wildcats who made up ground on the scoreboard though, closing the 11-6 deficit they had at the end of the first quarter to 13-12 by halftime.
The big moment of the first half came in the final minute on yet another loose ball after a turnover. Duluth’s Isabella Evangelista dove for a loose ball towards mid-court, and was clattered by a pair of Archer players from either side. Evangelista exited the game with gash on the right side of her face, a fitting way to end what was an extremely physical first half.
“Duluth has such a really good team,” Wright said. “They came out and put the pressure on us. They had some unfortunate injuries and stuff, and they still went strong. My girls did a good job of just following through and surviving.”
A 3-pointer from Nelson on the opening possession of the second half extended the Archer lead back up to four, but the Tigers still couldn't pull away. The Wildcats started moving the ball inside a little bit more after halftime, earning some trips to the free throw line to get their struggling offense going.
Divine Drayton was the key for Duluth, as she scored six points in the third quarter to keep the Wildcats in the game. She finished the game with eight, second only to Megan Mares, who finished with 10. The visitors took their first lead of the game with 14 seconds remaining in the third quarter when Mares intercepted a pass and finished it off at the other end with a layup in transition.
But the lead didn’t even last for 30 seconds. Nelson and McGowan took over in the fourth, driving through the lane at will and finishing the shots that weren’t falling in the first half. The pace of the game drastically increased, and that seemed to suit Archer as the lead reached eight with a couple minutes remaining.
“At halftime we had to tell them we needed more energy,” Wright said. “We were just sluggish. When we’re playing on all cylinders we can be a really good team. We just came out slow.”
Duluth had one final push left. The visitors had consecutive possessions end in layups to cut the lead to 39-35, and Nekaya Williams hit a clutch 3-pointer to make it 39-38 with 26.8 seconds to go. One Archer turnover and foul later, Williams was at the line shooting a 1-and-1 with a chance to tie or give Duluth the lead.
The first free threw drew back iron, and Archer came down with the rebound. The Tigers turned the ball over again on the ensuing inbounds to leave the door open for one final possession, but the defense from the first half returned just in time to save the season.
It’s only going to get tougher for the Tigers. Barring a major upset by Etowah on Friday, Archer will continue its playoff run on the road against the 25-2 Westlake Lions next week.