Ansley Allen heard all the questions in the weeks before the season started.
Back then, all the North Forsyth junior combo guard could do to answer them was to point to potential. She felt strongly that the young Raiders had the people in place to make another deep run. They still had to prove it on the floor, though, and losing a player like Catherine Shope, last season's All-County Player of the Year, to graduation was going to make the goal of another run tough, and everyone in the locker room knew it.
By Tuesday night's state quarterfinal matchup with Roswell, Allen and the Raiders had all but silenced the potential doubters, but that was not enough for them. They still had a game to win and a chance to match the greatest season in school history.
The game was largely a defensive grind early on. But by the third quarter, the Raiders' grit and poise started to shine through, beginning with a critical three from Allen. Then Caroline Martin, who has also taken up a bigger role in her junior year, connected on another three that turned into a four-point play a few minutes later to help pace the Raiders to their largest run of the night, putting them up 24-19 just before the end of the quarter.
“It was really awesome,” Allen said. “You could tell that we were getting in the groove offensively. We had been doing good defensively. I think that really built up a confidence in ourselves.”
The atmosphere in Raider Arena grew more raucous as the game drew to a close. The student section chanted ‘Final Four’ as North began to run the clock out, and after it did, the Raiders were mobbed as they celebrated a 35-28 victory, putting them in the state semifinals for the second straight season. They'll face Westlake, the team they lost to in last year's semis, on Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Buford City Arena.
The preseason questions didn’t just swirl outside the locker room. Head coach Eric Herrick knew how instrumental Shope was to his 2017-18 team, and he’s been pleasantly surprised with what he’s seen out of his group a year later.
“I had my doubts early on,” he said. “We had our ups and downs, our bumps and bruises. They surpassed every expectation I had for them. Losing our big kid this year -- I thought she was the key to us getting back to the Final Four, but this group, with one senior and being as young as we are, we're going to the Final Four. What more could you ask for?”
The game was defensive throughout, particularly at the start. Roswell, a team with much more height than the Raiders, was playing strong inside, but North wasn't shooting as well from outside as it wanted to be. Leading just 8-6 at the end of one, the Hornets weren’t faring much better, and that was by design.
“We had to make every possession for them an absolute grind and give them absolutely nothing easy,” Herrick said. “That was the game plan going in. We wanted to make somebody else beat us.”
And it wasn’t easy for either team for the rest of the first half. Martin made a deep three for the Raiders’ first bucket of the second, but both teams continued to struggle from the field. After a stretch of 3:22 with no points, Roswell made a jumper to tie it at 12-12, and the Hornets held a 15-13 lead at halftime. The Raiders, still in it, were trying their best to be patient.
“We really were just focusing on keeping up the good defense, and we knew that if we took our time, the points would come,” Allen said.
In the third, they did. Allen tied the game at 17-17 with three minutes left in the period before she spurred North’s decisive run with her three. After a Lily Bales three midway through the fourth extended the Raider lead to eight, it felt all but over.
Last season’s semifinal matchup against Westlake was a close game all the way to the end, and although the odds might be against them -- the Lions were most recently ranked No. 1 in Class 7A, while North was No. 8 -- the Raiders already know what it’s like to be questioned.
“We're not just happy to be here,” Herrick said. “We're going to go and compete just like we did last year. I don't think Westlake will take us lightly like they did last year. They'll come ready to play.”