SUWANEE — Seldom does the presence or absence of a single player have as big an impact on a single game as it did during Friday’s first-round Class AAAAAAA state girls basketball tournament game between Grayson and Peachtree Ridge.
With Lions freshman post Aaliyah Hunt battling foul trouble a good portion of the contest, the visiting Rams capitalized with big contributions down low from their own post player, as Malia Grace had a huge impact in helping Grayson to a 58-48 victory at Peachtree Ridge.
Tylia Kemp also was a major factor with a game-high 21 points, plus six rebounds and three steals.
However, it was Grace who was perhaps the catalyst, first helping get Hunt into foul trouble, and then taking advantage of her absence by finishing with seven points, 15 rebounds, four blocked shots and six steals to help the Rams (19-9) advance to the second round and travel to No. 3 state-ranked Cherokee next week.
“Malia had a great game,” Grayson coach Robin Potter said. “”She has had some great games (this season), and we’re getting better at recognizing when she’s open and getting the ball to her.
Grace’s presence was matched by Hunt’s in the very early going, as the 6-foot-1 freshman was every bit the equal of the 6-2 senior Grace on the defensive end, while Nadya McCown connected on a 3-pointer and Nia Hicks added a pair of buckets to help Peachtree Ridge (16-11) build a 7-2 lead in the first minute and a half after the opening tip.
But Hunt picked up her second foul with 6:35 still left in the first quarter and headed to the bench, and Grace began to take over on the defensive end, while Grayson’s guards and wings began to take advantage of Hunt’s absence in the paint on offense.
Kemp, Catherine Alben and Nyelle Lee each scored twice during a 19-9 run over the remainder of the quarter the vaulted the Rams into a 21-16 lead by the end of the opening frame.
With the lead just 26-22 midway trough the second quarter, Grayson began to make its move.
Alben was able to drive to the basket and draw a foul before hitting two free throws, and Lee and Alben followed with layups in transition to spark an 11-3 run over the final 4:05 of the first half to sen the Rams into intermission with a 37-25 lead.
Hunt was able to have an impact upon re-entering the game in the second half with a pair of baskets inside the paint in the first 1:17 of the third quarter, but was forced to the bench again after picking up her third foul with 4:51 left in the period.
Grayson built its lead up to as much as 49-33 following a jumper from Kemp from the left wing with 2:17 left in the quarter before Hunt returned, and Peachtree Ridge began to ramp up its defense, and the Rams began to get a bit sloppy.
A few ill-time turnovers, combined with baskets by by Saliah Ponteau and Jade Buchanan helped the Lions pull to within 49-37 by the end of the quarter.
A layup off a fastbreak by Hicks and a Hunt stickback in the opening 2 1/2 minutes of the fourth quarter pulled Peachtree Ridge even closer at 50-41 with 5:15 to play.
And when the Lions turned three more turnovers and a missed shot by Grayson into points, the Lions had completed an 11-4 run to pull to within 54-48, as close as they’d been since the 4:05 mark of the second quarter, following another Hunt stickback with 1:19 remaining.
But facing intense full-court pressure by Peachtree Ridge following a timeout, Grayson pulled off a big play to steal momentum back.
Alben ran down a long inbound lob in the front court, made a nifty head fake to freeze a defender and went in for a layup to gave the Rams some breathing room again at 56-48 with 1:15 remaining.
More Grayson turnovers, which committed 22 miscues on the night, kept the issue in doubt a bit longer, but Peachtree Ridge began to commit a few turnovers of its own — 15 for the game — to keep the Lions from cashing in to pull closer.
And two free throws from Lee with 10.2 seconds was the final tipping point that sealed the win for the Rams.
Besides the big game from Grace and Kemp, Alben finished with 11 points and game-high four assists, while Lee added eight points and 10 rebounds, though Potter knows there are a lot of improvements necessary with a second-round game at Cherokee looming.
““It’s going to be tough (next week) against Cherokee because they’ve got some big girls,” Potter said. “So we need our guard play to get better and our shooters to hit a little more consistently. … A lot of things to clean up, but we’re happy to advance.”
Meanwhile, Hunt eventually fought through the foul trouble to finish with a double-double of 14 points and 10 rebounds, to go with two blocked shots, while Hicks added 12 points and McCown finished with nine.
And Lions coach Vanessa White says there are plenty of positive vibes around the team despite having its season ended at 16-11, the program’s first winning season in about a decade.
“We tried to maintain while (Hunt) was out of the game,” White said. “We tried to use some of our guards to help with our other guards … because we only really have one post. So that really hurt us on both ends of the court … and kind of changed the whole momentum of the game.
“But at the end of the day, our girls have never been in this position (in the state tournament) before. And we’re playing what’s really a No. 1 seed playing as a No. 3 seed because they were upset in their region tournament. So we came up and worked hard. I’m proud of them.”