DAWSONVILLE -- With the game tilting away and a season in the balance Steve Sweat issued only a small reminder to his Dawson County girls basketball team on Tuesday.
"I told them, 'We were down in the first quarter last week at North Oconee.' That was all the wisdom I had... But I guess it worked," Sweat said.
While Sweat's words will never enter the pantheon of great sports challenges -- his team's response to the urging will certainly remain in Dawson County sports lore for years to come.
After trailing Decatur by as many as 15 points in the first half, the Lady Tigers stormed back to overtake the Lady Bulldogs -- including a scintillating fourth-quarter performance in which Dawson County held the visitors to just five points en route to a 52-47 victory.
The amazing comeback sent the Lady Tigers back to the state semifinals for the first time since 1992 -- where they will face Southwest Macon at 4 p.m. Saturday on the campus of Armstrong State.
"I couldn't even talk in the locker room afterward; this is so incredible," Sweat said. "These girls have just battled, battled, battled all year long, especially in the big games."
Thanks to a stellar second half -- including a 13-1 run and a 9 of 10 performance from the free throw line in the fourth quarter -- Dawson County (26-5) has a chance at yet a bigger game this weekend.
"I would never have imagined this," Lady Tigers senior point guard Carly Gilreath said. "We'd never even been to state in my first three seasons here, and now we're going to the Final Four in Savannah. I couldn't ask for a better way to finish out my career."
Gilreath played a key role in making sure that career kept going on Tuesday, digging out seven of her eight points in the second quarter to help answer Decatur's early domination. The senior drilled back-to-back jumpers and sank a 3-pointer with 4:15 left in the half to pull Dawson County within 27-17. The Lady Tigers then added two free throws from Ashley Parker to close to 27-19 at the half -- part of a 17-3 run that continued into the third quarter.
After watching her team trail from the start and fall behind 25-10 on Kori Anderson's 3-pointer from the right corner with 5:45 left in the half, Gilreath's surge calmed an anxious offense and provided a base for a successful second half assault.
"She's done that all year," Sweat said. "Tonight she proved she's one of the best players in the state."
"I'm not going to lie, at the beginning of the game we were scattered," Gilreath said. "We weren't used to that kind of pressure, but we never gave up, and we found a way to win."
The route to victory lay both through improved outside shooting -- the Lady Tigers drilled four 3-pointers in the second half after sinking just one in the first -- and a shifting defensive scheme that unsettled Decatur in the third quarter and stoned the Lady Bulldogs in the fourth.
"We had to pick and choose our times to do different things on defense," Sweat said. "We didn't come out and full court press at the start because they were so athletic, but we went with a half-court, then we went no press, then we came back full-court. I don't think they ever got comfortable on offense."
Dawson County also mixed up half-court looks, including some zone sets that helped stymie Decatur, while Karlie Bearden also worked hard to deny the ball to Lady Bulldogs standout Jordan Dillard anytime the forward looked for the ball away from the basket.
The continued pressure eventually paid huge dividends in the fourth quarter when Decatur managed just two field goals -- the first coming with 1:21 to play and Dawson County leading 49-45.
"You have to keep pressure going, and you never know when it might pay off," Sweat said. "Tonight it took a really long time, but I think it made a big difference in the fourth quarter. That was a really good team that we beat tonight, and we knew we would have to earn it."
Sheyenne Seabolt also proved a key in the second half for the Lady Tigers. The sophomore post showed her intentions at the start of the third quarter, stepping outside to drill a 3-pointer. She then added a lay-up 2:40 into the period to cap a 17-3 run and pull Dawson County to within 28-27. Seabolt scored 13 of her game-high 17 in the second half -- including eight in the fourth quarter.
The Lady Tigers knotted the score in the third, 32-32 on Allie Costley's jumper with 3:45 remaining, but Decatur responded with five straight points and held a 42-36 advantage at the start of the fourth.
The advantage shrank quickly, however, starting with a 3-pointer from Karlie Bearden (seven points) before Kacie Bearden evened the score at 43-43 on a putback -- part of a dominating fourth quarter performance under the boards for Dawson, which out-rebounded Decatur 14-4 over the final eight minutes.
Seabolt finally pushed Dawson County in front with two free throws at 45-43 with 3:35 left to play, sending the packed crowd into delirium. But the Lady Tigers kept their heads and rattled off four more points before Alana Johnson finally scored for Decatur with 1:21 remaining. By then Dawson County's momentum was too strong, however, and the Lady Tigers surged toward Saturday's semifinal showdown in Savannah.
"This is all about these girls," said Sweat, who coached the Lady Tigers on their last semifinal run 21 years ago. "I'm just glad I had a part in this."
Dillard scored 14 for Decatur, Jayla Morrow added 13 and Anderson 12.