MACON -- Forward Lauren Walker was on the free throw line with 11 seconds to play, and Marietta held a three-point lead.
If she could make one of the two shots, the Lady Blue Devils were going to win the Class AAAAAAA state championship. It was a moment the senior captain had trained her entire life for.
I felt very safe," Marietta coach Derrick DeWitt said. "She makes 50 free throws before every game, and I said, 'Hey, swishes only.'"
The first one caught the rim but went through. The second one?
"She drained the swishes," he said.
The two free throws gave the Lady Blue Devils a 52-47 victory over Woodstock at the Macon Coliseum on Saturday. The title is the second in program history and it comes exactly 70 years and three days since they won the first one in 1951.
For Walker, it wrapped up one of the best high school career's any member of the Lady Blue Devils has ever had, and a memory she will take with her to Michigan State and beyond.
"This was my last high school game," said Walker, who led the team with 19 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks. "Those are the moments where you have to come through."
For Marietta, it was the continuation of what many may have considered an unexpected run through the postseason. The Lady Blue Devils arrived in the state championship game after winning their first four playoff games by a total of nine points, including winning the last two by one point each. That was already the fewest combined points for any team to reach the championship game since the tournament was expanded to 32 team in 1999. Now, the mark of winning a state title by a combined margin of 14 points will likely stand for a long time to come.
"That's what happens when you play the best competition," DeWitt said of beating Pebblebrook, Parkview, Cherokee in overtime and then archrival McEachern in the final four. "When you play the best competition, you are going to get their best shot and you have to be able to withstand it. We have, and we're the last team standing in Class AAAAAAA. We're excited. Each game made us stronger and made us more confident."
Each one of the previous four games had put the fan base through the wringer. The Lady Blue Devils were down 10 on the road at Cherokee before finding a way to win, and then they had to close the game on a 9-2 run to beat McEachern by 1. So it was somewhat of a surprise that when Loren Nelson, who finished with seven points and six rebounds, made a pair of free throws with 4:38 to play, Marietta had a 12-point lead at 46-34. That's when Woodstock decided the Lady Blue Devils and their fans needed needed to buckle up for one more wild ride.
With 3:27 to play, Bridget Utberg, who led the Lady Wolverines with a game-high 26 points, made a layup to cut the lead to 46-38. Moments later, she made a 3-pointer to cut the lead to seven, and after Marietta missed the front end of a 1-and-1, Casey Miller made a pair of free throws to pull Woodstock within 48-43 with 1:38 left in the game.
The Lady Blue Devils struggled all night from the foul line making only 13 of 26 attempts, and when they missed another front end of a 1-and-1 moments later, it set up Karson Martin, who had 12 points, to bring Woodstock within three with a pair of free throws of her own.
The Lady Wolverines missed out on a chance to pull even closer. Nelson made the first of her two free throws to put Marietta up by four, but then missed the second. Instead of Woodstock grabbing the rebound and heading the other way, point guard Chloe Sterling flashed under the basket and plucked the loose ball away. She made 1 of 2 free throws to put Marietta up 50-45.
"It was stressful at the end," Walker said. "But we finished. We learned how to win."
The victory brings Marietta's final record to 21-5, and it won the last 11 in a row. It also completes a season in which the team didn't know whether it was going to practice, let alone play, from one day to the next. The perseverance of his team is one of the main things DeWitt will remember about the 2020-21 season.
"It was the commitment from these select few," he said. "It was the weekly Zoom meetings and the Monday, Wednesday, Friday 7 a.m. workouts when we were allowed to do them. It's the relationships that we built and the bonds we created as a team. Now, they will forever be known as state champions."
However, it didn't look like the Lady Blue Devils would be in position to hang a new banner in the new Marietta Garden early on.
Woodstock jumped out to an 11-4 lead after the first quarter. While neither team would shoot better than 30 percent for the game, the Lady Wolverines looked a step quicker. That began to change in the second quarter.
Sterling, who had averaged 23 points a game in the playoffs and finished with 10 points and 15 rebounds, had struggled to find any kind of success in the first eight minutes. But she began the second period with a short jumper, and that seemed to settle the entire team down. It started an 8-1 surge, highlighted by a 3-pointer by Makayah Harris, who had seven points, to pull the Lady Blue Devils within 13-12, and then a free throw by Kayla Day, who had nine points, tied the game at 13-all
"I knew I wasn't going to have a big night on the offensive side," Sterling said. "That's why I gave the ball to my teammates. I felt the energy and I knew I needed to control the game, slow it down and make sure we didn't try to hurry."
Trailing 15-13, Marietta closed the quarter on a 9-0 run with back-to-back 3-pointers by Walker, and then one by Sterling with 8 seconds to play. It turned a seven-point deficit at the end of one quarter into a seven-point lead, 22-15, at halftime and had the players and coaches sprinting off the court and into the locker room.
"They were right on time," DeWitt said about the closing barrage of 3-pointers. "The second quarter was the heart and the energy that we needed to win a state title. We showed a commitment to excellence and a commitment to each other in that second quarter, that was huge."