This time of year hasn’t been the most exciting for North Forsyth girls basketball in recent seasons.
But what a thrill it is for first-year coach Eric Herrick and company now, especially after defeating Milton 42-39 at home Tuesday and remaining in contention for a high Region 6-AAAAA tournament seed.
“To be honest with you, it’s just great to have meaningful games here at North Forsyth this time of year,” Herrick said. “That’s what is really inspiring our girls right now.”
A small run spanning the final two quarters and a late free-throw effort let the Lady Raiders (15-7, 4-5 Region 6-AAAAA) edge the Lady Eagles in a defensive dogfight reminiscent of their Jan. 6 meeting, a 31-30 North victory.
Point guard Kim Blake led the Raiders with 15 points, 11 of which came in the first half via 3 of 4 3-pointers. Milton forward Dayna Hardgrove poured in a game-high 17, including 13 in the final period.
The Lady Raiders produced a 10-3 run starting midway through the third and ending early in the fourth with a Caroline Bowns layup that gave them a 29-22 advantage, the largest for either team. The Raiders went 8-for-10 from the charity stripe during the last 2:13 to close out the Eagles.
“Coming back from last season, I know [my older teammates] had a hard season last year,” freshman guard Lochlain Corliss said. “Actually winning and being successful, that’s a huge comeback from last year, a big difference. Nobody expected it.
“It’s great to be a part of.”
Since 2006-07 (North’s last winning season and state playoff appearance), the Raiders were 9-44 in regular season games played in January and February. They lost in the region tournament’s first round in each of the last four campaigns.
This year, they’re 6-3 since the calendar turned with three regular season outings remaining — a far from perfect showing, but one that gives them a chance to close the slate on a four-game win streak, earn a favorable postseason spot and possibly return to the state playoffs.
Did their coach conceive this as a possibility when he first stepped foot in Coal Mountain freshly removed from a state semifinals appearance with Chattahoochee? Not right away.
“We’re definitely exceeding the expectations I had the first day walking in,” Herrick said, “but once you see the work ethic of these kids, you know, my expectations have just gone through the roof. There’s no limit to what these kids can do on any given night, because they do work hard and they come ready to play every night.”
A big component has been winning close games. With its second edging of Milton (8-14, 5-5), North improved to 7-0 in games decided by five points or less.
Back-to-back Hardgrove jumpers — both after North turnovers — tied the game at 31 with 2:30 remaining. North’s free-throw run created a 39-36 lead, Kasey Meadows’ layup with 18 seconds left served as the dagger, and Corliss’ free throw with 10 seconds to go made it 42-36.
Hardgrove hit a 3 from the right wing with 2.5 seconds left, but it was too late.
“It’s all about who wants it more,” Corliss said. “That’s what’s allowed us to win these close ones a few times.”
The teams played within a possession of each other for most of the first three quarters, save for three separate North leads of five points and one Eagles advantage by the same margin. Blake drilled two free throws after drawing a foul at the buzzer, giving the Raiders a 27-22 lead going into the fourth.
Guards Erin Brundage and Grace Farnsworth, two of Milton’s more potent scorers, combined for 14 points against a stingy half-court matchup defense.
The Raiders celebrated their eighth victory in their last 11 games, but attention quickly turned to meetings with Northview, West Forsyth and Centennial. North lost to Northview by 14 and West by 13 earlier this season and barely edged Centennial in overtime.
A second-place region finish behind 16-3, 8-0 Alpharetta was up for grabs as of Tuesday night. Herrick sees no reason why his team can’t be the one to ascend to that spot.
“We want to win them all,” he said. “This region’s tricky. [Seeds] two through seven, it honestly doesn’t matter because anybody can beat anybody on any given night. … Realistically, the five, six and seven from this region could go to state.
“There’s no question you want to be playing your best ball.”
How far North’s truly come in its first year under Herrick is about to be revealed, starting with Friday’s 6 p.m. contest at home against Northview.