GAINESVILLE -- Justin Wheeler had no idea how good his team could be at the start of the season -- but the first year East Hall girls basketball coach knew one thing: the Lady Vikings would play defense and hustle.
On Saturday, those two factors helped East Hall to the state tournament.
The Lady Vikings forced 10 fourth quarter turnovers and shut down Banks County's perimeter game en route to a 63-56 win in the Region 7-AAA quarterfinals at North Hall High School in Gainesville.
"I'm so happy for the girls -- it's been an up-and-down season, but they never gave up and kept fighting the whole way," said Wheeler, who helped East Hall back into the state tournament for the first time since 2012 and the 7-AAA semifinals, where it will take on North Hall on Monday in Buford. "We knew coming into every game that we could compete -- we just had to finish."
The Lady Vikings (13-13) showed they have learned how to do just that, overcoming a 34-25 halftime deficit and pulled in front via an 11-2 fourth quarter run. And had East Hall shot better than 12 of 26 from the free throw line in the fourth quarter, the Lady Vikings might have coasted to the 7-AAA semifinals.
As it was, East Hall still had more than enough to get their first win over Banks County this season.
"We've lost to them in two straight games; they're a good team," Wheeler said. "We were letting them get free too much in the middle in the first half, and you can't have that. We took that away more in the second half."
The Lady Vikings also took away the 3-point shot. And after watching Banks County drop five first half 3-pointers, East Hall held the Lady Leopards without a single trey after the interval.
"That's huge, because the first time they beat us, they hit 11 3-pointers," Wheeler said.
Kaitlyn Duncan still put up a game-high 22 points, but it wasn't enough to counter East Hall's Jatasia Bailey and Jenny Edwards -- who put up 18 apiece. Edwards scored all of her 18 in the second half after missing much of the first half with foul trouble.
Ashlyn Ellison also scored 12 for East Hall.
"We've been working so hard, and I know the girls are so happy right now," Wheeler said. "This is just awesome."
Banks County opened on an 11-0 run and stayed in control of the first half via the 3-point shot and Duncan.
Duncan scored nine points in the second quarter -- including three straight baskets when East Hall pulled within 21-16 -- to help the Lady Leopards maintain their momentum. Banks County also drilled five first half 3-pointers, including three for Casey Turner, as the Lady Leopards built a 34-25 halftime advantage. Yet Turner's 13 first half points were all she would manage, as the Lady Vikings switched their defensive focus.
"We started off trying to guard Kaitlyn differently than we had in the past games," Wheeler said. "But we went back more to our normal defense in the second half."
East Hall stayed within striking distance thanks in large part to the play of Bailey, who scored 12 points in the second half to help offset a 13-4 rebounding advantage for Banks County. East Hall won the second half on the boards 15-11.
Banks County's season is now complete.
NORTH HALL GIRLS 56,
WHITE COUNTY 37
The Lady Trojans pulled away with a 13-0 run at the start of the fourth quarter to seal their return to the state tournament after a one-year absence.
North Hall's defense clamped down over the final eight minutes, allowing just two points from White County, as a back-and-forth battle turned into a comfortable victory.
"Our defense just picked it up. We preach to our kids all the time that games are won on defense, and they showed that tonight," Lady Trojans coach Kristi House said. "It wasn't a pretty win, but I'll take an ugly win any day."
The Lady Trojans move on to the Region 7-AAA semifinals, where they will battle East Hall at 4 p.m. Monday at Buford High.
"We know East Hall is going to bring it, so we have to regroup and get ready," House said.
Sadie Cleveland scored a game-high 13 points to pace North Hall, while Taylor Ann Kelley scored eight and Kensi Gillespie and Katie Sayres each added seven. Nine different Lady Trojans scored in the contest.
"We had a lot of young people out there scoring tonight, and with a win-or-go-home situation that can be tough on younger players," House said. "Hopefully this win will free them up."
North Hall took the lead for good late in the first quarter, closing the period on a 9-0 run that stretched to 11-0 early in the third quarter and a 22-13 advantage. White County kept it close through the third quarter but never closed the gap and could only watch the Lady Trojans pull away down the stretch.
Jordan Taylor put up 12 points to pace White County. Hannah Wall and Paige Thomas each chipped in with eight.
The Lady Warriors season is now complete.
WHITE COUNTY BOYS 88,
BANKS COUNTY 72
The Leopards had the Warriors number during the regular season -- but that momentum swung dramatically on Saturday, as White County stormed to a 25-10 first quarter lead and held off a late charge to secure their first win over Banks County this campaign.
Most importantly, the victory secured the Warriors first state tournament berth in nine years -- as well as a Region 7-AAA semifinal spot against Buford at 8:30 p.m. Monday in Buford.
"We've been talking about state for three years, and we've shown signs of it the first couple of years, but we weren't consistent enough," said third-year Warriors coach Sam Borg. "I'm just so happy for the kids, because this is their moment."
Five players scored in double digits to lead the White County onslaught, led by Spencer Adams' game-high 24. Whit Mauncy and Jordan Egerton also scored 16 apiece, while Bradley Hurst added 12 and Juwan Dorsey 10.
"Spencer's grandmother (Frances Adams) passed away at 10 last night, and so he's had a heavy heart all day, and he dedicated this game to her," Borg said. "He's our leader, and the team all rallied around him."
White County stormed out of the gates, draining four of their nine 3-pointers in the first quarter to build a 15-point advantage that grew to 52-30 at the half and 68-44 after three quarters.
Despite the deficit Banks County refused to give in, however, and the Leopards pulled as close as 77-70 with 1:05 remaining.
White County fired right back, however, responding with 11 straight points to seal the momentous win.
"We knew the second half would be a challenge because we were a little tired," Borg said. "And I'm not pleased with the way we let things get close there, but I'm happy to take the win."
Austin Venable led Banks County with 22 points, while Zez Steeple added 12.
Banks County's season is now complete.