For the first time all season, things were looking grim for the No. 1-ranked Kendrick Lady Cherokees. After coasting through most of the season, their fate was in the hands of the Greater Atlanta Christian Lady Spartans in the quarterfinals of the Class AA state playoffs. Kendrick's star player, Kahlia Lawrence, had fouled out inside the first minute of the fourth quarter. The game was tied at 48 with 1 second left and the Lady Spartans at the free throw line.
If the free throw was made, the Lady Cherokees' season was over. But the free throw was missed and the Lady Cherokees lived to see overtime, where they prevailed with a 55-52 victory and never looked back. They went on to win the semifinal and championship games with double-digit victories to complete an undefeated season (29-0).
"I tell people all the time you have to have some luck," Lady Cherokees coach Sterling Hicks said. "We were lucky that game. (Once in overtime), our seniors stepped up and decided they weren't going to lose because they didn't want the season to end.
"When we look back, we'll probably say that was our state championship game because that was the toughest game we played all year."
That's a testament to how much of a battle the No. 3-ranked Lady Spartans gave Kendrick, because the championship game was against the Wesleyan Lady Wolves, who were seeking a state record seventh consecutive championship. But after being on the brink of elimination against GAC, the Lady Cherokees blew past Putnam County 74-47 in the semifinal and appeared more than ready for one last test against Wesleyan.
They were up to the challenge, as Lawrence poured in 25 points to lead all scorers, with Deja Cheatham pitching in 16 as Kendrick marched to a 69-58 victory.
For the Lady Cherokees, it was the second state title in program history with the first coming in 2008, when they also went undefeated (28-0).
"I guess that's the only way we can win it around here," Hicks said. "We were 30-1 last year so in our mind we have to win all the games."
If you look at Kendrick's schedule, it would appear on the surface that the Lady Cherokees were without a challenge nearly the entire regular season. Only twice were their victories less than double-digits, and most were blowouts as they posted victories of 110-18, 105-28, 103-26 and 91-11 among the most notable. However, Cheatham missed the final month of the regular season with a knee injury. At the time she went down, Hicks said she was playing the best basketball of anyone on the team.
But Cheatham returned just in time for the region title and that was perhaps the difference in Kendrick's successful postseason run.
Now, the Lady Cherokees are once again state champs.
"I'm extremely proud of these kids," Hicks said. "They're truly hard workers and deserving of everything that comes their way. They put in the work and I can't say enough good things about them."
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