MILLEDGEVILLE — It was a second chance that Central Fellowship refused to waste.
The Lady Lancers rebounded from a near-loss to Westfield in the GISA Class AAA quarterfinals to beat Stratford 42-30 in the semifinals at Georgia College & State University’s Centennial Center on Thursday to advance to their first state championship game since 2004. CFCA will play rival FPD, a team it has gone 2-1 against this year, in the championship at 6:40 p.m. Saturday.
“This is the dream,” CFCA senior Danielle Marrone said. “You want your last game to be the biggest game.”
The Lady Lancers (31-4) got a big first half out of Mandy Spencer and a quick start from Marrone in the third quarter to put away the Eaglettes, who won’t play for the championship for the first time in five years.
Spencer, the school’s all-time leading scorer and one of nine seniors on the team, scored the Lady Lancers’first 10 points of the contest, and she had 12 of the team’s 14 first-half points.
“She was huge for us in the first half, because not everything was going right,” CFCA head coach Matt Chambless said. “But she put us on her back, and that’s what she does.”
Stratford, however, hung tight with CFCA despite losing leading scorer Mallory Long to a severe left ankle sprain midway through the first quarter. The Eaglettes stayed close by playing strong defense, but they lost much of their ability to attack the basket without Long, who returned in the second half with a heavily taped ankle, and scored just five points in the second quarter.
“Mallory went down and you don’t game plan for that,”Stratford head coach Ed Smith said. “But our girls did a good job of responding to that and keeping the game close, and to go into halftime only down two was pretty good. Our girls know what to do, and they did what I expected them to do in a tough situation after losing their offensive leader.”
The game’s biggest spark came from Marrone, who saw her basketball life flash before her eyes this past Friday on the bench when she fouled out against Westfield and was sure her career was over. But she and the Lady Lancers were granted second life, and Marrone made sure she made the most of it.
The senior scored her first points at the start of the third quarter and a few minutes later finished off a three-point play that gave CFCA a 23-14 lead. Marrone later made a 3-pointer to give the Lady Lancers a 13-point lead, their biggest of the game to that point.
“I just had a couple of openings and made some shots,” said Marrone, who scored eight of her 10 points in the third quarter. “I think we all came out and played better in the third quarter. We played lackadaisical against Westfield, and we weren’t going to do that again.”
Stratford continued to fight and would get as close as 10 with a minute to play after trailing by as many as 15 in the fourth quarter.
“I just feel like I’ve got a little bad luck,” Long said. “(CFCA) just brought more intensity (Thursday) than we did. We couldn’t keep up with them.”