For 24 minutes Tuesday the Decatur girls overcame the intensity of a nearly sold-out Dawson County gym, opening with gusto and racing to a 15-point lead early in the second quarter.
But then they wilted like flowers in a drought, scoring only one point in the fourth quarter’s first seven minutes. The result was a come-from-behind 52-47 victory for fifth-ranked Dawson County, a game where it never led until the final 3½ minutes.
Dawson advances to Saturday’s Final Four in Savannah where it plays Southwest Macon, a 58-47 winner over Washington County Tuesday.
For eighth-ranked Decatur, which finishes at 23-8, it ends an historic season that saw the Lady Bulldogs make their deepest state-tournament run in 41 years.
“I hate losing but you have to admit it was a great game,” said Decatur’s Jordan Dillard. “It was so loud out there we couldn’t hear each other. In the end we just stalled and they made the plays they had to make in the last few minutes.”
In the final game of her prep career, Dillard turned in a gutsy performance with 14 points and nine rebounds. It was a far cry from her 34 points last Friday, but she was clearly hobbling on a left ankle she sprained a week ago.
Though claiming “the ankle wasn’t an issue,” Dillard couldn’t elevate on her jumper and couldn’t push off in the open floor. She finished with only four field goals, three of those at point-blank range.
Yet right up until the end Dawson County consistently double- and even triple-teamed her when she posted low. Decatur’s primary failing in the second half was rarely finding alternatives to Dillard.
The first half was a different story. Freshman Jayla Morrow often split Dawson’s 1-2-2 zone – which it played throughout -- and Kori Anderson shot over the zone’s top, hitting three consecutive threes.
Her third and final three gave Decatur a 25-10 lead two minutes into the second quarter. But then the Lady Bulldogs went into an inexplicable swoon, scoring only two points in the next 8:10.
Meantime Dawson, particularly 6-0 post Sheyenne Seabolt, came to life. Seabolt sat out most of the first half due to foul trouble, but a minute into the second half hit a right perimeter three. Thirty seconds later Kacie Bearden hit a left-perimeter three, and Decatur’s lead was whittled to 27-25.
Still, Decatur led 42-36 after three quarters and had possession to open the fourth. Racing down court for a basket drive, Morrow appeared to get clotheslined, or whacked in the neck by a Dawson defender. No call was made, the ball came loose and seconds later Dawson’s Karlie Bearden hit another three, cutting it to 42-39.
“I thought Jayla got fouled right there, and if we’d gone up eight it would’ve been huge,” said Decatur coach Bill Roberts. “But overall I thought the game was well officiated, particularly considering how physical it was.”
The bumps and grinds wore Decatur down, though, giving the edge to Dawson and its deeper bench. Eight players scored for Dawson and five different players hit three pointers.
The sophomore Seabolt led all scorers with 17 points, 13 of those in the second half. She hit that one three to open the third quarter, but most her points came on free throws and nifty low-post moves which Decatur couldn’t stop.
When the Bulldogs had another long dry spell, managing only a single free throw from Dillard in the first seven minutes of the fourth, Dawson came all the way back.
Bearden’s angle drive off a fast break tied the game at 43 with 3:55 left, and at 3:33 Seabolt hit a pair of free throws giving the home team its first lead at 45-43. Seabolt in fact had six of her team’s next eight points, and her two made free throws with 48.3 left essentially put this one away at 51-45.
“She made the difference with her strength and size,” Roberts said. “I like her an awful lot.”
Decatur made no three pointers and only six second-half field goals (two of those in the final minute when this one of mostly over), shooting 19 percent in the final 16 minutes. Decatur actually shot 29 percent for the game overall (16 for 55), better than Dawson’s 15 for 57 or 26 percent.
The difference was that Dawson County made five more free throws (17 for 23 compared to Decatur’s 12 of 17) and that its 1-2-2 proved impenetrable in the game’s final 22 minutes.
Although the freshman Morrow played one of her better games, scoring 13 points, her driving lanes were mostly cut off in the second half when she managed only three points. Meantime Dillard was always bottled up on the low post, and Anderson missed her last four three-point attempts. In the final 22 minutes Dawson outscored Decatur 42-22.
“It was a very physical game and we were just wore out by the end,” Roberts said. “I told the girls they having nothing to hang their heads about. In the end we got beat by a good team on their home court where the place was packed, and there’s just nothing to be ashamed about.”