Dougherty's Amber Ward led the Lady Trojans with 25 points Tuesday night in first-round state win against Griffin.
BY TIMOTHY THREADCRAFT
SPECIAL TO THE HERALD
ALBANY — The No. 2-seeded Dougherty girls got all they bargained for and more Tuesday evening when they played host to the Griffin in the first round of the GHSA Class AAAA state playoffs.
The Lady Bears came into the game with a chip on their shoulder, playing in their first postseason in eleven years.
But Dougherty made sure they were one-and-done. It was far from easy.
Thanks to Amber Ward’s career-high 25 points, Dougherty (16-7) prevailed in overtime, 72-66, to punch its ticket to the next round.
At one point, it seemed the visiting underdogs, who entered the game with a sub-.500 record, would pull off a huge upset in the first round.
The Lady Trojans held a slight 24-23 lead at halftime, and by the end of the third, they’d only stretched the lead to five.
The Lady Bears saw their opportunity and did all they could to seize it. They opened up the fourth quarter on a 15-4 run and led 49-43 with three minutes left in regulation.
It was a given that senior Ra'Keta Shelton would step up sooner or later, and after Shelton converted two straight baskets in the low post to cut the Griffin lead to two with 2:31 left on the clock, Ward locked in.
After Shelton intercepted a pass, she passed to Quannesha Gatling, who found Ward to tie the game up.
"I was just saying to myself, ‘They don’t need to score, I don’t want to go to overtime again,' ” Shelton said. “All I asked from my girls was to stay calm and play defense.”
After lead changes on consecutive possessions, the Lady Trojans held a 53-51 edge with 18 seconds left in regulation. Jones took a 3-pointer that rolled in and out of the cylinder, but Xandria Hosley caught the rebound and made the putback to send the game into overtime.
From that point on, it was the Amber Ward show, featuring a side of Shelton.
Seven of Ward's career-high 25 came in the crucial overtime period. After falling behind, 60-57, Ward spotted up from the top of the key for a 3-pointer to tie the game up with 1:26 left in overtime, and more impressively, hit two free throws with the game on the line on the next possession.
Ashton Elliot was called for carrying on the next Griffin possession, and when the Lady Trojans got the ball back, none other than Ward was there to put them ahead once and for all.
“Was it? Oh, wow,” said Ward, after learning of her game- and career-high scoring output. “I just wanted to knock a shot down, then get back and execute on defense for us to get back in the game. We learned (Tuesday) that we can’t be defeated; we can only defeat ourselves. We have to play like the team we are to get to the next level.”
Dougherty coach Charlene Jackson knew who she needed to rely on from long range.
“If I can’t score under the basket, she’s the first person I look for. I trust her to knock that shot down.” Jackson said. “The players have always told Amber she was a scorer. We’ve been waiting on her to deliver for a long time, because she’s capable of putting up big numbers like that. This will be great motivation for her moving forward.”
Shelton intercepted yet another pass after regaining the lead, and Ward scored again, marking two of nine straight points scored in the last minute of overtime.
However, even after that amazing effort, the Lady Trojans were only up three points. On the next possession, Elliot made up for the earlier miscue with a 3-pointer that silenced the Dougherty faithful and brought the game to a frenzied peak.
However, when it all came down the wire, the Dougherty defense saved the day. Gatling intercepted a Griffin pass on the next possession and was brought down on a flagrant foul before converting the three-point play. After a lay-in that served as a dagger, courtesy of Shelton, Jackson and her Lady Trojans had escaped to fight another day.
“(Coach Jackson) just told us to box out!” an exasperated Gatling yelled afterwards. “Get rebounds, she kept repeating that. Attack the basket, make free throws, don’t run after their shooters like matadors.”
Jackson said she was proud of her girls for pulling it out.
“At the end, I was so unsure if these girls wanted to win or not,” Jackson said. “But I’ve been stressing perseverance ever since the region playoffs. They did the little things they needed to do and made big plays. That’s the sign of a good team. We’ve still got things we need to work out, but I’m very pleased with them.”
Shelton finished with 23 points, seven rebounds, and five steals, while Gatling added 22 points.
Griffin’s Shacoria Jones, Elliot and Aurealia Mangham scored 20, 16 and 11, respectively.
Dougherty (16-7) moves on to Friday to face the winner of the matchup between Mary Persons and Wayne County. Griffin finishes the season with a 14-15 record.