The Lady Warriors, who trailed by five at the break, stepped up in the second half to force overtime. They did it again in the second overtime period, too, and came away with a 65-53 victory Friday.
Having advanced beyond the second round for the first time since 1987, Cherokee (29-1) will host Region 7AAAAAA runner-up Norcross — led by McDonald’s All-American and North Carolina signee Diamond DeShields — on Tuesday. The Blue Devils also won their second-round game after two overtimes, against Gwinnett County rival Parkview.
As evidenced by the two overtime periods, Cherokee’s battle with North Forsyth (24-6) was much closer than the final score reflects. But with Aunisha Williams carrying the team on her back, the Lady Warriors eased away from the Region 6AAAAAA runner-up in the final 4 minutes.
Williams scored nine of her team’s 14 points in the second overtime as Cherokee converted turnovers into layups and trips to the free-throw line. North Forsyth scored just two points in the period.
“That’s a big-time player in a big game,” Cherokee coach Matt Cates said of Williams. “She kept pouring it on. She showed up to play. That’s for sure. She showed what’s she’s made of.”
Williams started the night hot. She scored the first points of the game —giving her 1,000 for her career — and never looked back.
The junior carried the team through the first quarter, accounting for the Lady Warriors’ first seven points of the game, but Cherokee still trailed 12-11 after the first quarter.
Williams then went quiet in the second, but senior Kiana Howell took over as the driving force.
Playing the point in the absence of Byers, Howell seemed to welcome the pressure brought by North Forysth, which at times double-teamed her.
Driving to the basket and drawing fouls, Howell made Cherokee’s only field goals of the second quarter. Jenna Brennan added a pair of free throws on a 1-and-1, but the Lady Warriors found themselves down 24-19 at the half after Caroline Bowns made a late shot for North Forsyth.
At the break, the question seemed to be who would step up next for Cherokee next. The Lady Warriors soon had an answer — everyone.
Williams poured in seven more points, including the first basket of the second half. Howell added four, while Brennan connected on a 3-pointer — the Lady Warriors’ only long-distance shot for the game.
Cherokee swung the momentum in its favor when Williams made a steal and took it to the length of the court for a layup and a 31-29 lead — the Lady Warriors’ first lead since the opening basket. Williams quickly added two more points when her teammates made another steal and fed to her down court. A pair of free throws by both Howell and Williams put Cherokee up 37-31 after three quarters.
The lead didn’t last long. North Forsyth’s Lochlain Corliss was sent to the line with 5:16 left in the game for the first points of the fourth quarter. She made two more free throws with 2:50 remaining that brought the Lady Raiders to within a score 37-35.
Howell and Corliss traded trips to the free-throw line before Bowns knotted the game at 39-all with a minute left. She put her team up 42-41 with a 3-pointer at the 1-minute mark before Caroline Light made a free throw for a 43-41 lead with 23 seconds to play in regulation.
Cherokee ran the clock down and forced the ball in to Williams, who missed from the low post. Howell was quick on the rebound, however, and put it up for the game-tying shot with 0.2 seconds on the clock.
In the first overtime, the Lady Raiders went up 48-43 behind a 3-pointer by Kim Blake and free throws by Bowns. Cherokee started pushing the ball in to Williams, who was benefiting from a mis-match after Avery Scarbrough fouled out with 2:33 left in regulation.
Williams made a pair of free throws before Morgan Darby made her first basket of the game to bring the Lady Warriors to within one. Cherokee went up by one on a basket by Williams before Bowns made another 3. Williams then tied the game at 51-all with a pair of free throws with a minute left in the first overtime, but no one scored again.
In the second overtime, Williams and Darby made quick baskets for a 55-53 lead before Williams profited from the pair of steals.
The Lady Warriors didn’t let up. Howell and Williams each added free throws, as did Christie Mixon, to seal the game.
Cates said it was a good win for the team, which saw Sydney Pfanis and Bethany Huch step up defensively.
“We have been through adversity all year and had to step up, and you know, we had some kids step up big (Friday),” Cates said. “There is no replacing Byers, but (Pfanis and Huch) did their best to do that.”
Williams, who went scoreless in the second and fourth quarters, finished the game with a double-double of 29 points and 26 rebounds.
Howell added 18 points — 17 of which came in regulation — while Brennan finished with nine.
Bowns led North Forsyth with 23 points, and Scarbrough finished with 10.