North Forsyth’s girls basketball team started feeling the pressure late Wednesday night, both in their minds and courtesy of their opponents on the floor.
The Raiders led Duluth by 13 at the start of the fourth quarter of their second-round playoff matchup, but as the clock began to tick down, that lead became thinner and thinner. With 1:40 left, North only led by three, and Duluth, who had been pressing well all game, began to turn it up even more. Everyone, including Morgan Giordano, North’s only senior, did what they could to keep level heads.
“I saw everybody getting all hyped up,” Giordano said. “I was just like, 'We need to calm it down and slow it down.' That's when we play best, (at) our speed, when we control the tempo.”
Just when it seemed that North would let a game they had led since the first quarter slip away, Ansley Allen, who had an off night after a string of dominant performances, found an open Vekondja Ogbogu in the lane with 43 seconds left. She caught the pass, made her shot under the net and drew a foul to the loudest roar the crowd had made all night.
After Ogbogu made her ensuing free throw, Caroline Martin did the rest, banking her own shots from the line to help seal an eventual 59-52 win over the Wildcats. With the victory, the Raiders clinched their second consecutive trip to the Elite Eight, and just their third appearance in school history. They’ll host the winner of Thursday’s Roswell-McEachern matchup.
“I think we had some early chances to put it away, and we didn’t,” North coach Eric Herrick said. “(We) let them hang around and they turned that pressure up and made it interesting. They really started committing three or four bodies to our ball handlers late right there. You've just got to space the floor and make sensible basketball decisions.”
North began to get an idea of the kind of defensive pressure Duluth brought early in the first. Despite the Wildcats’ success on that front, though, they initially couldn’t make the shots to take advantage. Duluth only made two field goals in the first period, trailing the Raiders 11-4 heading into the second. Martin and Lily Bales added threes in the second to help North stay ahead, but by halftime, the Wildcats had a realistic chance at the upset, down 28-21.
While Martin and Allen have been the Raiders’ two most prolific scorers this season, North benefitted from plenty of others on Wednesday, particularly in the second half, in what Herrick described as one of the most balanced scoring performances of the season. Martin led her team with 16 points against Duluth, but Giordano, Ogbogu and Bales each contributed nine points or more.
“It was kind of flowing, I guess,” Giordano said. “I thought everybody was just so fluid. I'm more of a defensive (player). But tonight, I don't know -- they were passing me such good passes and everybody was scoring. I don't usually try to score but tonight, it was definitely more comfortable to drive in.”
In part because of those performances, North extended its lead to 45-32 by the end of the third before Duluth capitalized on miscues and missed free throws to come dangerously close to an upset.
Like most of her teammates, Giordano was around for North’s historic run to the Final Four last season, and heading to a second straight Elite Eight is just as exciting to her as it is to her teammates. In her final year in a Raider uniform, though, the moment the clock hit zero meant just a little bit more, and she hopes the ride is a just a bit longer this time.
“I'm so glad I get to relive it all,” she said. “Last year was amazing. I'm so glad I'm getting to do it with this group of girls because we were so close.”