The answer was so obvious, Eric Herrick even let out the tiniest of chuckles before saying it.
"We're at the Final Four with one senior," the North Forsyth girls basketball head coach said. "How many kids off of this team started last year here?"
Just one: Caroline Martin, the unquestioned top player in Region 5-7A this past season and probably the second-best in 2017-18. So no, Herrick couldn't have squeezed much more out of this particular group of Raiders, which finished with a 26-5 overall record and a berth in the state semifinals for the second straight season. He was honest, almost disarmingly so at times, about the unexpectedness of this run.
That doesn't erase the disappointment brought on by Saturday's 48-26 loss to Westlake. North, faced with a fairly massive size disadvantage, knew what it had to do to stay in the game, but couldn't do it. Martin swished a corner three with a bit under five minutes to play in the first quarter, firing up the Raiders' sizable supporters' section, but it was just one of two field goals they would hit in the half, with a Harley Helms mid-range bank shot being the other. The struggles made the Raiders even more hesitant, with multiple players passing up open looks while fans implored them to shoot.
The Buford City Arena, with its unfamiliar deep backdrops, is not the easiest place to shoot, and the pressure of the setting probably didn't help, either. That didn't keep the Raiders, who shot 1-11 on threes in the first half, from thinking that they should have been better.
"When you shoot as poor as we did in the first half, you're in for a long night," Herrick said. "...We had great looks – we've just got to make shots."
But Westlake's lead never grew at an explosive pace. Perhaps North's signature trait is its ability to force an opponent into how the Raiders want to play, and they still managed to do that for most of the game on Saturday.
Westlake came into the game averaging 71 points per game, and at halftime the Lions had just 21, with the last coming on a floater right before the horn. Westlake tried to run, but the Raiders zipped back to their own half on transition chances. The Lions heavily pressured the ball, but North managed to squeeze between defenders on dribbles and find unexpected openings on passes.
And despite Lydia Freeman, Westlake's 6-foot-5 center, standing as an immovable force on the low block, North, as usual, rebounded bigger than its size would suggest. One of the biggest cheers of the game came when 5-foot-6 Vekondja Ogbogu managed to split a rebound with Freeman and give the Raiders possession on a jump ball.
"I just go for boxing out and hoping that I exaggerated enough for the refs to see that I'm struggling and she's over me," Ogbogu said. "But I just have to do the best I can."
This was the same matchup that last year's Raiders saw in the semifinals, but it had an unmistakably different feel. To get there in 2018 was the expectation, Herrick said, while this team just "refused to lose." Last season's Raiders were senior-led, by players like Catherine Shope and Cassie Markle and Bella Caracciolo, while this group had just Morgan Giordano, who only stepped into a full-time role this season. Last season's group looked like a conventional basketball team much of the time, with a few guards, a forward and a center, while this season's Raiders did not, which explains why Ogbogu was competing with Freeman for a rebound in the first place.
"If you'd have told us back in November that we were going to the Final Four, we would have been floored," Herrick said.
So the Raiders already can already look towards next season with excitement. The rest of county's basketball fans should as well, because the teams that claimed the top three playoff seeds in Region 5-7A – North, Forsyth Central and West Forsyth – had just four seniors combined. Central and West were also led to a large extent by freshmen.
"We want rivals," Herrick said. "We want close games. We want packed gyms."
Of course, that doesn't make North anything less than the overwhelming early favorite. They weren't supposed to be here in the first place, so why doubt that they'll be back?
"We're just ready to get in the gym and work hard," Martin said. "And obviously work on our shot more."