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Basketball: North girls keep cool late to beat Hillgrove and advance to state semifinals
The North Forsyth girls basketball team celebrates after beating Hillgrove in the state quarterfinals on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018 at North Forsyth High School. - photo by Lily McGregor Photography

As much as the North Forsyth girls basketball team fought it, the thought couldn’t help but sneak into the Raiders’ heads.

What if we blow this?

Hillgrove charged ahead in the second half of Tuesday’s state quarterfinal game in Coal Mountain, turning what was a commanding Raiders lead into a much more precarious one. North had led by 10 at halftime and as much as 13 in the third quarter, but with 6:11 to play, after the Hawks’ Michelle Smith hit two free throws, the lead was just one.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, we just had a lead by 10, and now they’re about to come back and win it,’” North sophomore guard Caroline Martin said.

But roughly 30 minutes later, the Raiders were at center court, celebrating in a mob of students, and then climbing a ladder to cut down one of the nets, celebrating a 68-63 win that put North in the state semifinals. The Raiders are now set to face Westlake on Saturday at 6 p.m. at the Buford Arena.

“I’m so proud of these girls,” North head coach Eric Herrick said. “We may now be the biggest, the toughest, the strongest, the most athletic, but our heart is as big as this gym.”

Catherine Shope led the Raiders with 31 points, including four crucial free throws with less than 30 seconds to play, and this was how she prevented panic from taking hold in the fourth quarter: Focus on the next play, and remember that you can’t change the past.

The Raiders probably would have liked to do so, though, starting with how the game unfolded for senior forward Cassie Markle. After just two minutes and 39 seconds of game time in the first quarter, Markle picked up her second foul and hit the bench. The Raiders had to go without Markle’s post defense and diverse offensive game, and when she was back on the floor in the second half, North often had to rotate her out when the Raiders were on defense.

North Forsyth's Catherine Shope rises for a layup in the Raiders' state quarterfinal game against Hillgrove on Feb. 27, 2018 at North Forsyth High School. - photo by Lily McGregor Photography
Both teams wound up focusing their offense around guard play, which worked in North’s favor, with Shope putting in a massive performance and Martin’s 21-point performance. But the Hawks kept countering, led by Laren Vanarsdale’s 31 points. The Hawks also made 23 of 30 free throws, including a run of 14 straight starting in the second quarter and ending in the fourth.

“If you would have told me they scored 63 points, I would’ve been real concerned about the outcome,” Herrick said.

The Raiders (28-2) didn’t crumble, though. After Smith’s free throws, Shope hit a three-pointer off the bounce to put North’s lead at four. When the margin was back within a basket, at 64-61 with less than a minute to play, Martin shook a defender and gave it to Shope, who got fouled and made her free throws.

This playoff run is the longest in North’s history, surpassing the mark set when the Raiders were stopped in the quarterfinals in 2014. That team was considerably different than the current North squad, built on interior play and physical grit.

However, this season’s Raiders have a different quality, one that has put them in the Final Four.

“Sometimes you make up for that toughness and that physicality with just the ability to knock down an open shot,” Herrick said.