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Lady Panthers roar past Marist, Buford; punch ticket to AAAA state championship

By MICHAEL MURRAY

FORT VALLEY – The Americus-Sumter High School (ASHS) Lady Panthers saw a great deal of excitement last weekend, as the team traveled to Fort Valley State University (FVSU) to tackle a pair of formidable opponents in the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds of the Georgia High School Association (GHSA) state Class AAAA playoffs.
The Lady Panthers opened the action on Feb. 26 with a 63-56 victory over the Marist School Lady War Eagles of Atlanta before completing a sweep of their Fort Valley series with a 51-44 thrashing of defending champions, the Buford Lady Wolves.
With yet another pair of impressive wins under their belts, the Lady Panthers improved their overall season record to 30-1 and secured a spot for themselves in the state championship match, scheduled to take place on March 3 at 7:00 p.m. in the Macon Coliseum.
The Lady Panthers will face the Veterans High School Lady Warhawks of Kathleen, GA in the title match. Veterans, who will enter the final game with a 27-4 overall record, earned their spot in the championship with a victory 28-24 win over Wayne County.
On the upcoming championship match, Lady Panther head coach, Sherri Harris, told the Times-Recorder, “We’re familiar with each other,” referring to the two championship teams. “We played them a lot at a couple of team camps this summer… four or five times, so we’re very familiar with their team.”
The game will be televised live on Georgia Public Broadcasting.
An aggressive  29-point performance from ASHS’ Atyanna Gaulden helped push the Lady Panthers one step closer to a state title in the quarterfinal round of the state playoffs on Feb. 26.
The number-one ranked Lady Panthers hit the court at FVSU for a heavyweight bout against what were then the number-two ranked MArise Lady War Eagles.
Kayla Howard opened up the scoring for the Lady Panthers with a lay-up, followed immediately by a pair of penetrating drives to the bucket by Gaulden.
Lady Panther, Timia Swanson, tossed in a bucket from the perimeter to give ASHS eight points, but the Marist girls stayed with them every step of the way.
Due, in part, to a strong performance from sisters, Diarra and Dominique Oden, Marist managed to grab a 12-9 lead heading into the second quarter.
The Lady Panthers fought their way back into the lead halfway through the second frame and never looked back as buckets from Swanson and Howard put the Lady Panthers in striking distance. Just before the five-minute mark in the second frame, ASHS’ Jakala Stevenson tossed in a Gaulden-assisted lay-up to give the Americus girls a 15-14 lead that they would hang onto for the remainder of the match.
That’s certainly not to say that the remainder of the contest did not put the Lady Panthers’ skills to the test, as the reality was quite the contrary.
Throughout the remainder of the first half, the Lady Panthers pulled ahead by as many as seven points when Amber Hicks got in on the scoring action, contributing eight points in just under three minutes.
The celebration would be short-lived, however, as Marist’s shooters began to heat up after the break, narrowing the gap to a single point twice (30-29 and 33-32) before Swanson connected on a hook shot from the key to ignite the Lady Panthers on an eight-point run punctuated by a pair of steals from Hicks, another steal by Howard, and a pair of fast break lay-ups by Gaulden to keep the packed house of ASHS fans roaring their approval.
The Lady War Eagles continued their valiant effort until the final buzzer, but would get no closer than four points to a comeback before the 63-56 decision was finalized.
The Lady Panthers didn’t pull any punches in the match, putting all of their skill and determination to the test as they took on some of the most vicious opponents that they had faced all season.
In addition to her 29-point contribution, Gaulden dished out seven assists and nabbed four steals in the contest.
Swanson earned herself a double double in the contest, tossing in 12 points and pulling down 10 rebounds. Howard contributed another nine points to the win while leading the team in steals with nine. Hicks added eight points and dished out a pair of assists.
Still riding the momentum of the previous day’s victory, the Lady Panthers returned to the court the following afternoon to take on the Buford Lady Wolves in the semifinal round of competition.
In the low-scoring, but very intense, contest that had supporters of both ASHS and Buford on the edges of their seats, the Lady Panthers saw another early deficit two minutes into the first period.
This time around, Swanson broke the scoring seal with a Jykiera Long-assisted lay-up and Gaulden followed with another. A lay-up from Buford’s Tory Ozment sparked a 10-2 run for the opposition that left the Lady Panthers trailing by six points at the 5:30 mark. Hicks helped turn the tide in the Lady Panthers’ direction, grabbing a steal and assisting Gaulden in a lay-up. Gaulden, the recent Florida State University commit, then proceeded to go on a scoring spree that lasted the remainder of the frame, broken only by a free throw from Hicks. At the conclusion of the initial period, the teams found the score tied 15-15.
Over the next eight minutes, the Lady Panthers began to creep ahead of their opponents, propelled by perimeter shots from Gaulden, Howard, and Swanson, as well as a lay-up from Long.
The ASHS girls took a 29-23 lead into the locker room at half-time and carefully guarded that advantage through the remainder of the contest.
Buford threatened the Lady Panthers’ lead several more times, with the team’s ace shooters, Ozment and Audrey Weiner, setting the pace for the Lady Wolves with 11 points apiece.
The Buford girls came within one point of retaking the lead late in the third frame, only to have their hopes of a comeback dashed by a penetrating drive to the bucket by Gaulden and a last-second three-pointer by ASHS long-range sniper, J. Long.
Taking a 38-32 lead into the final frame gave the Lady Panthers the cushion they needed to eventually snag the win, even though the Lady Wolves would again pull within one point halfway through the final stanza. The ASHS girls remained vigilant in their march to the championship, however, blasting off on a 6-0 run to leave their foes in the dust and cinch the victory.
Gaulden led the charge for the Lady Panthers in the semifinals as well, repeatedly finding (and sometimes creating) a path to the bucket to contribute 20 points, eight assists, and four steals to the win.
Timia Swanson and J. Long each tacked on another 11 points to ASHS’ impressive victory, followed closely by Kayla Howard with eight.
Swanson led the team on the boards with nine rebounds. Long followed with seven.
Coach Harris spoke with the times-Recorder following the match. “I thought we were playing really good defense,” she said. “We had a couple of lapses in there where it got tight, but our defense was so aggressive that [the Lady Wolves] were not able to capitalize on those opportunities. They missed a couple of baskets and started knocking down threes late in the game. I told the girls, ‘No matter what they do, do not leave them a three-point shot.’ We held on long enough to get the victory.”
Asked how it feels to be so close to a possible state championship title, Harris said, “It feels great. The girls have worked extremely hard. I’ve gotten on their nerves and they’ve gotten on mine and we’re going to wrap this up on Thursday night.”
A send-off celebration will be held for the Lady Panthers on Thursday, March 3 at noon at the Russell Thomas, Jr. Safety Building, which houses the Americus Police Department and Americus Fire and Rescue.

Michael Murray/Americus Times-Recorder:   Atyanna Gaulden scrambles for control of a loose ball during the Lady Panthers’ semifinal match against Buford on Feb. 27.

Michael Murray/Americus Times-Recorder:
Atyanna Gaulden scrambles for control of a loose ball during the Lady Panthers’ semifinal match against Buford on Feb. 27.