“I tell my girls all the time in practice,” the McEachern coach said. “‘It’s defense, defense, defense that wins games and wins championships.’”
Arthur’s players learned well because defense was what ultimately saved the day for McEachern on Thursday.
Pachiyaanna Roberts blocked Shayla Cooper’s potential game-tying shot in the final seconds, and the Lady Indians successfully inbounded the ball to clinch a 64-61 victory over two-time defending champion Norcross in their Class AAAAA state semifinal game at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
McEachern’s victory over Norcross was especially sweet because it was the Lady Blue Devils who defeated the Lady Indians in last year’s final.
Instead, it’s now undefeated McEachern (32-0), the second-ranked team in the nation according to ESPN, which will advance to its second straight title game, facing archrival Hillgrove tonight at 7 p.m.
The Region 4AAAAA adversaries will be facing off for a fourth time tonight, with the Lady Indians having swept the previous meetings, including the region championship game. And it will come against Hillgrove coach Sheryl Fowler, who manned McEachern’s sideline for 16 years before making the short move across Powder Springs
“It’s hard to beat anybody twice, let alone three times,” Arthur said. “Coach Fowler is an excellent coach, and she and her team deserve to be in this position. I imagine they’ll try to slow the game down, and they’ll do an excellent job against us because coach Fowler’s teams always play well. We can’t think of this as going for four wins over them. Right now it’s 0-0.
Roberts scored 11 points in Thursday’s semifinal, but her biggest shot came with 1:31 left in the game.
With McEachern leading by only two points after Cooper made the second of two free throws, the Syracuse-bound Roberts, one of six Division I signees or commitments on the Lady Indians’ roster, drove the baseline during her team’s possession and forced a foul. The field goal was good and Roberts made her free throw to put McEachern in front 60-55.
Dominique Wilson, who had a game-high 21 points, including seven in the fourth quarter, made two free throws for a six-point McEachern advantage with less than a minute left. But Norcross’ Diamond DeShields and Jasmine Kemp each made two free throws as the Lady Blue Devils (26-6) trailed 64-61 with 27.4 seconds on the clock.
McEachern turned the ball over on its next possession, and DeShields’ 3-point try fell short with 6.8 remaining. The Lady Indians turned it over again, but Roberts’ block ended Norcross’s hopes of sending the game into overtime.
“Everybody played a great game,” Arthur said. “Late in close games, I’ve learned that these girls are able to calm each other down and stay focused on the game and play great defense when they need to. This was a struggle (Thursday), but I’ll take a win any day.”
Roberts, who also had eight rebounds, two assists and two steals, made two of McEachern’s seven 3-pointers in the first half as the Lady Indians led 29-19 at halftime.
Norcross elected to play a 2-3 zone defense in the first half, and McEachern capitalized, hitting its first four shots for a 9-0 advantage and draining four 3-pointers over the first 16 minutes.
The Lady Blue Devils played more man-to-man in the second half, but it didn’t bother McEachern, which tied its biggest lead of the contest 54-41 after Wilson’s 3-pointer with 6:45 remaining in the fourth.
McEachern junior Mia Cooper picked up her fourth foul and left the game with the Lady Indians ahead by 10. Norcross then took advantage, outscoring McEachern 9-3 during her absence to pull to within two after Shayla Cooper’s free throw at the 1:46 mark.
McEachern made seven 3-pointers overall and went 15-for-19 from the free-throw line, including 8-for-12 in the fourth period. The Lady Indians had nine assists and collected 12 steals.
“Pretty much all of my girls can shoot the 3,” Arthur said. “We scouted Norcross and knew they’d play some zone on us. They challenged us to shoot and we prepared for that.”
Te’A Cooper finished with 18 points and had three rebounds, three assists and five steals for McEachern. Destinie Gibbs totaled seven points and five rebounds.
Cooper led Norcross with 18 points and seven rebounds. Tori Carter totaled 14, Jasmine Kemp had had 12 and DeShields finished with nine points, 11 rebounds, five assists and two steals.