The North Forsyth girls basketball team needed a good game from Ansley Allen on Friday, and Allen knew that. So on the Raiders’ first possession of the game, the junior dribbled straight towards the basket, and also right at one of Forsyth Central’s many taller players.
“I was a little nervous that I needed to pick up the slack on the scoring,” Allen said. “I think you could tell on the first two plays.”
North did not have its strongest start in Friday’s Region 5-7A title game against the Bulldogs. The Raiders were missing Caroline Martin, their star junior combo guard, with a high ankle sprain, and the offense stalled at first. Just over three minutes in, the Bulldogs had a 6-0 lead.
But North had not reached this game by fluke, going 11-0 against region opponents up to that point and winning every game by double digits. Allen got a three to give North its first points of the game, and Harley Helms hit another one just over a minute later. Two Allen baskets later, and the Raiders were in the lead. And after a furious run of full-court defense, their trademark, North was once again in full control of its opponent. They led 12-9 after the first quarter, then 28-13 at halftime, and then 44-22 by the end of the third.
Despite Martin’s absence, the Raiders rolled again on Friday, beating Central 55-33 to win their second straight region title and clinch a No. 1 state playoff seed. The win was also North’s 24th in a row in region play, a streak that dates back to 2017.
A scene immediately following the game provided further context to the impressiveness of North’s win: Martin was awarded Region Player of the Year, and she needed crutches to get onto the court and take the award. The junior injured her ankle on Wednesday, in the second quarter of the Raiders’ blowout semifinal win over South Forsyth.
Herrick won’t underscore Martin’s importance to North, but the Raiders’ exceptional depth meant that her absence was far from a death blow to the team.
“We didn’t talk about it,” North head coach Eric Herrick said. “Next man up. I told our kids this morning at shootaround, (there’s) absolutely no excuse for not winning.”
It did, however, shift more focus to Allen, who has a similar skillset to Martin and often been just as much of a threat to score this season. She had 12 points at halftime and poured in 10 more in the third quarter alone. She finished with 26 overall, her second-highest total of the season, and got them in a variety of ways, slicing to the basket for off-balance finishes and hitting deep jumpers.
“I think this (was) her best game, when we needed her the most,” Herrick said. “Any time we needed a bucket, Ansley would just go get one. She’s relentless going to the basket. She was phenomenal tonight.”
Allen’s was one way the Raiders pulled away, but Central head coach Angela Hurt also pointed to North’s swarm-like defense as a defining factor in the outcome. The Raiders’ strength and unity there, and the Bulldogs’ inability to handle it effectively, is a sign to Hurt of where Central (16-11) needs to improve, even with its impressive rise from having won just a single game in 2016-17.
“If we plan to compete against them next year, we’re going to have to spend a lot of time on all of us becoming better ball-handlers,” Hurt said. “If we can begin to handle the ball in that pressure, then the game’s a lot different.”
The win puts North (23-4) in the same starting position it had last year’s state playoffs, when the Raiders reached the state semifinals, their furthest-ever run. Herrick and Allen both recognize the significant differences between those team teams: The current Raiders are younger and smaller, and they also didn’t have a significant injury-related hole like they do now. Herrick said Martin’s injury was a “severe” high ankle sprain, one of which they do know the prognosis.
“Caroline Martin’s a key,” Herrick said. “To make a deep run in the state tournament, Caroline Martin has to be at 100 percent. That’s still a question mark right now.”