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Basketball: North Forsyth girls hold off Pope, qualify for Sweet 16
North Forsyth's Kamryn Gardner looks to make a pass against Pope during a Class 6A state first-round matchup Tuesday at Raider Arena. (Photo by Robin Patterson)

Erin Whalen entered her senior season with a renewed focus.

After signing in November to play basketball at Valdosta State University, Whalen knew she needed to diversify her skillset to excel. So, getting comfortable driving in the lane became a priority.

North Forsyth girls basketball coach Brad Kudlas is glad it did.

Whalen’s presence in the paint — along with London Weaver’s and Lindsey Pirkle’s play beneath the rim — helped lead the Raiders to an inside-out win over Pope Tuesday in the first round of the Class 6A playoffs, 67-57.

“The big thing that I think was key in this game was getting it inside and drawing fouls on them,” Kudlas said. “We did a great job getting them to foul us; that saved us, right there.”

The Raiders finished 24 of 33 from the free-throw line, sinking 17 in the second half alone.

North built a first-quarter lead off back-to-back 3-pointers from Kamryn Gardner and Meredith Franklin, and the Raiders never relinquished it, though not for a lack of effort on Pope’s part.

The Greyhounds trimmed North’s lead to one point late in the third quarter after a trifecta of 3s — one from Caroline Heintzelman and two more from Cetta Gatto — but a 13-3 run helped the Raiders put the game out of reach.

It’s a run that featured a putback at the rim by Whalen, a cutting drive by Weaver and an emphatic block from Pirkle that set the tone for the remainder of the game.

Pirkle had been awarded a foul on two separate occasions as Pope’s guards drove toward the basket, sending the Greyhounds to the free-throw line and frustrating the Raiders post player.

“That’s going to happen when you’re a post like that,” Kudlas said. “Then she comes down and gets hammered. That’s part of being a big in today’s society. That’s one place where she’s really grown — if something like that happens, she picks it up and she’s going to get it back.”

Pirkle did just that, blocking the shot convincingly as the home crowd erupted.

While Pope retained possession after the inbound pass, the energy of the crowd, particularly North’s student section purposefully mimicking the shot clock inaccurately, led to a Pope player hurling a desperation 3 with plenty of time left on the shot clock.

“They still got the ball off of that, but that was an energy play we needed at that point,” Kudlas said.

Pope’s perimeter shooting allowed the Greyhounds to remain in striking distance.

Gatto, who set Pope’s record for most career 3-pointers earlier this season, finished with 17 points and had four 3s in the second half. As a team, the Greyhounds sank a dozen 3s.

“They’ve got shooters that can get hot. For some reason, teams come in here and shoot well,” Kudlas said with a laugh. 

Pope served as a somewhat unorthodox first-round opponent for North. The Greyhounds captured the Region 7-6A regular-season title before dropping five of their last six games, including two in the region tournament.

That sent Pope (19-9) stumbling into the No. 4 spot.

“They’re definitely better than we thought,” Whalen said. “We watched film on them, of course, but it’s different seeing them online versus in person. Having to run man (defense) against them is something that’s different for us, but I think we did really well in the end.”

The Region 8-6A champion Raiders have now won 11 straight games, though Tuesday’s contest marked the most competitive game since a Jan. 14 loss to Habersham Central.

“It was definitely a team effort,” Kudlas said. “I was telling them, one of the biggest plays was Addison (Peck) and London diving on a loose ball, then we get possession and go down and are able to score. Those things are hard to do when you’re up 30 in a game. You’re only going to see better teams from here on out.” 

North (22-6) will face a familiar foe in the Class 6A Sweet 16 after Sequoyah beat Douglas County, 65-50. The Raiders fell to the Chiefs (18-11) twice at neutral-sites during the regular season, both time by three points: 51-48 and 45-42.

North will host Sequoyah at 7 p.m. Feb. 24 at Raider Arena.

“We have a lot of planning to do,” Kudlas said. “They’ve really improved and come out of that tough region, so that record does not really do them service. They’re a lot better than their record with the teams they had to play. I’m glad we get to play at home, but it’s definitely going to be a war.”