As the last seconds ticked away, McEachern girls’ basketball coach Phyllis Arthur danced down the Lady Indians’ bench, pumping her fists and shaking her head in celebration. Her players behind her leaped and yelled. Mighty McEachern had moved on. Survived, really.
On the other side of the court, South Forsyth coaches and players filed in to shake hands with McEachern with sullen stares. They were silent and pensive, resigned to a 56-47 loss in the second round of the Class AAAAAA tournament that felt too soon after last season’s historic run to the Final Four.
McEachern advances to face Mountain View in the quarterfinals on Tuesday. South ends its season 25-5.
“I was so proud of the way the girls played out there,” South coach Keith Gravitt said. “Played hard the whole game.”
A year ago, there was no need for last-second merriment on the sidelines for McEachern. The Lady Indians trampled over South in the Class AAAAAA semifinals, 64-27, the nationally-ranked juggernaut dispatching Forsyth County’s first girls’ state semifinalist since 1970 with ease. South knew its fate that day by the third quarter.
But there was South, down 48-46 with 4:42 left in the game after a baseline jumper by sophomore Emily Dreslinski. It was her eighth straight point for South, and Arthur had had enough. She called timeout and charged toward Lady Indians junior Tierra Lindsey with a fury of instruction to stick to Dreslinski. South’s gym roared with possibility.
Over the next four minutes, possibility turned to anguish. Dreslinski never scored again. South could only manage a single free throw by Sarah Myers. With 1:07 left, the Lady War Eagles started fouling, hoping to put McEachern at the foul line and extend their chance of a comeback. Even when Lady Indians star senior Te’a Cooper, the Tennessee signee and McDonald’s All-American, missed the front end of a one-and-one, Lady Indians freshman Chanel Wilson managed to get the rebound.
Cooper (29 points) never missed again, going 4 for 4 at the free-throw line down the stretch to seal the game.
“Our girls, we’re hungry,” Arthur said. “People have counted us out because we lost two of our key players. They really wanted it. And we talked about it all week. Whoever came to play, whoever wanted it, that’s what was going to happen. We just wanted it.”
Dreslinski put forth an emphatic performance that belied her experience and role on the team. All season, she’d dutifully been one of South’s first options off the bench. She entered Saturday averaging 5.1 points a game. Her career-high had been 15 points back on Nov. 25. She’d scored in double figures just three times in 29 games.
South and its crowd needed a jolt in the first quarter after McEachern raced out to a 14-1 lead, and Dreslinski gave it to them. She stripped the ball from a Lady Indians player and took the ball down the court herself, never hesitant, for a layup.
Dreslinski finished off a 16-5 run by South with back-to-back layups to cut McEachern’s lead to 21-19 in the second quarter. By halftime she had eight points. She scored eight of South’s 11 points in the fourth quarter.
“After the region championship, after I saw that I can do this, I can beat these girls, I think I just had a lot of confidence in going to the hoop,” Dreslinski said. “After that first drive, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I got this.’ And I just kept going because they wouldn’t defend me.”
“We as coaches have just seen her get better and better,” Gravitt said. “That’s what you hope happens to a sophomore.”
As others struggled, Dreslinski was a steadying, if not surprising, source of production. Myers finished with 12 points but went just 2 for 8 from the free-throw line and missed all eight of her three-point attempts. The usually consistent trio of KK Storms, Shelby Threlkeld and Ally Welch combined for just nine points on 3-of-13 shooting. Mari Jonassen provided a much-needed boost with 10 points, including two big 3s in the third quarter.
They were a group undeterred by the moment. Indeed, they’d all been through the moment before anyways. They knocked off the returning state champion last season, defeating Norcross in overtime on the road. Here came another, one South knew all too well.
A whole season had led up this rematch. The Lady War Eagles believed they had been sharpened enough by its regular season schedule to be prepared for McEachern. After watching film on the Lady Indians, they knew this would be no blowout. They knew this time would be different.
Just not different enough.
“The difference between our girls in the locker room tonight compared to last year says a lot to me,” Gravitt said. “We went in there and they knew they were right there with this team.”