Today’s game between the Columbus State Lady Cougars and North Georgia Lady Nighthawks was supposed to be a banner contest for the Forsyth Central High School community, as two former Central teammates and life-long friends, Keeley Chester of North Georgia and Kayla Richards of Columbus State, were set to face off in the first round of the NCAA D-II Women’s Basketball Tournament.
Unfortunately, that won’t happen.
Chester, who has been hurt for much of the year, will be sidelined with a shoulder injury. She is scheduled to have surgery Monday, which will keep her out an additional six months.
Her and Richards, who met when they were 2-years-old and have been close ever since, created a lasting legacy together at Central. To see them pinned as opponents would have been a treat for the Bulldog faithful, but that affair will have to wait for another time.
"I hate that Keeley is hurt," said Richards. "She’s a really versatile player. She is very dependable and can score a lot. Since we didn’t play against her we feel that we can put a game plan to start their other players."
Indeed, Chester’s absence bodes well for Columbus State, which dropped both of its contests against North Georgia earlier in the year. Chester didn’t play in either of those games, however, so the edge remains with the Lady Nighthawks — if only a little.
With a 22-6 record, North Georgia was awarded the No. 4 seed in the Southeast bracket, while Columbus (21-7) was slated just behind at No. 5.
While North Georgia has proven capable of beating Columbus State without Chester’s services, she is certainly a huge loss for the Lady Nighthawks moving forward. In the 20 games she played this season, she averaged 11.6 points and 5.2 rebounds per game, both good for fourth on her team.
Still, Chester has faith that her team can get the job done without her.
"We have everything we need to do well this Friday," Chester said. "We’ve played each other twice and know each other well. It should be a great game either way."
Richards is currently averaging 3.4 points per game coming off the bench. As a guard, she is currently playing behind two seniors (Tae Smith and Asha Alexander) and figures to take on a more prominent role next season.
"She’s a great shooter and very strong player," Chester said of Richards. "Very fundamentally sound. She takes advantage of her chances and can be dangerous."
Though Columbus State is the underdog, the Lady Cougars do have momentum on their side. They’re coming off a Peach Belt Tournament championship, having beaten Georgia College in the final, 60-49.
Taking all factors into consideration, this match-up figures to be a close one.
"We don’t want to be done yet," said Richards. "We feel like we have the keys to go further than just the Peach Belt tournament. As of right now, we’re putting that out of our minds."
"We really want to beat our rival North Georgia. We don’t plan to lose three in a row."