CANTON — On a neutral court earlier in the season, Grayson played Cherokee down to the wire, but it was the Lady Warriors’ home-court advantage that propelled them to a convincing win Thursday.
Cherokee beat Grayson 74-53 in the second round of the Class AAAAAAA state tournament, extending a its winning streak to 15 games.
Cherokee (27-2) pulled away in the second half, outscoring Grayson 39-23. The Lady Rams (19-10) kept within striking distance through the first two quarters, trailing 35-30 at halftime, but the Lady Warriors used pressure defense and an efficient press break to wear down the younger opponent.
“(Grayson) is a great team,” Cherokee coach Matt Cates said. “They’re very talented and well-coached and we’re fortunate we played well tonight. We had a good defensive scheme and our kids followed it.”
With the win, Cherokee advanced to the quarterfinals for the third year in a row. The Lady Warriors will host North Forsyth on Tuesday.
Neither team showed any nerves from the opening tip. Cherokee senior point guard Ashlyn Andrus knocked down her first shot, a 3-pointer from the wing, to open the scoring as Cherokee burst out to a 7-2 lead in the opening minutes.
Grayson used a full-court press from the opening possession on, but beyond a few instances, Cherokee broke the press and found high-percentage shots throughout the contest.
Grayson’s defensive pressure in the halfcourt, however, held Cherokee in check early on, which allowed the Lady Rams to push the ball and attack quickly at the other end. Sophomores Tylia Kemp and Catherine Alben combined for 11 first-quarter points, and Alben tied the game at 13-all late in the first quarter.
Andrus, who finished with 19 points, closed out the opening period with her second 3-pointer and Cherokee led 17-13.
Cherokee senior Chatham Brown was electric in the first half, crashing the boards, getting her hands on loose balls and finishing at the rim. Brown scored 13 of her 16 points in the first half and knocked down a pair of free throws to close out the second quarter, sending Cherokee into the locker room with a 5-point lead.
“We knew we had to keep the tempo up in that first half,” Brown said. “We play fast, but they play fast as well, so we knew we had to try to slow them down on that end. We just had to play our defense, get our hands up and not let them get downhill on us.”
Even on the passes Cherokee did not steal, the Lady Warriors were in the passing lanes seemingly all game. Whether on the press break or off turnovers, Cherokee’s fast-break offense began to take its toll in the third quarter. Brown’s basket off an assist from Andrus gave Cherokee a 58-31 lead midway through the third.
“Third quarters have been our Achilles’ heel all season,” Grayson coach Robin Potter said. “We battled back to within striking distance, but then it was just our decision-making. We turned the ball over and gave up some easy baskets. I don’t know how many turnovers we had tonight, but it felt like 50.”
Led by Alden, who scored a game-high 24 points, Grayson cut the lead to 51-44 toward the end of the third quarter. Cherokee responded, however, with a quick 6-0 run capped by a 3-pointer by Cherokee senior Courtney Cates, which gave the Lady Warriors the momentum heading into the final quarter.
“We talked about how everybody makes runs,” Matt Cates said. “We knew they were going to make a run, but I felt like we were going to make a run, too. The team that rebounded and defended would probably come out on top, and I thought we did a pretty good job of doing both of those things in the second half.”
Cherokee shut the door with a 15-2 run to open the fourth. Cherokee senior Sydne Watts scored 15 of her team-high 22 points in the second half and helped lead the run which closed out the game. Andrus’ three-point play with 5 minutes left forced Potter to call a timeout but the damage had been done.
“It was getting exciting in the second half, because, honestly, we like close games,” Brown said. “Close games make us work harder, and it was exciting in the second half when we knew we had this one in the bag.”
Cherokee will now host North Forsyth with a trip to the semifinals on the line. North Forsyth gave Cherokee one of its two losses in late November, and Brown said the Lady Warriors knew exactly who was potentially waiting in the next round.
“We knew we had to pull this one out because we wanted to play North Forsyth,” Brown said. “I felt like we had more passion tonight than the first time we played Grayson because there was a major outcome at stake. We’ll play better defense this time, and I think it’ll be a really good game.”