GAINESVILLE — North Hall coach Kristi House's big smile after the game said it all.
Her Lady Trojans (22-8, Region 7-3A No. 1 seed) finally broke the second round barrier, after a six-year drought, and danced into the quarterfinals of the Class 3A tournament with a 55-33 win over Savannah at Lynn Cottrell Court on Wednesday.
The Lady Trojans can check off goal No. 3 -- A Lanierland Tournament title, A Region 7-3A championship and, now, a quarterfinal berth.
"It's kind of really super cool," House said. "This senior class today was their third sweet 16 in their career. We wanted to break through that ceiling of the Sweet 16 and today we were able to accomplish that on our home floor. So, it's just amazing, and it's awesome."
North Hall's intense zone defensive pressure, which wreaked havoc all night long, had Savannah (19-10, Region 3-3A No. 3 seed) dazed and confused most of the night.
The Blue Jackets also didn't have an answer for Grace Hollifield, who's range apparently started as soon as she walked into the gym on Wednesday. Hollifield launched 24-plus foot 3-pointers, 6 in total, including the first nine points of the game.
"Especially in that first quarter, like three trips down the floor, she bangs three 3’s and it just kind of got the crowd going -- everybody was like, alright, Grace is here to play we’re good to go, you know,” House said.
She finished the night with a game-high 23 points, 18 from the 3-point arc and beyond. Lauren Swanson added 12 points, followed by Maci Gillespie with 9.
As for the defense, it wasn't just Gillespie, although she provided the spark to the plug. It was a team effort as Rylee McCall, Ansley Smallwood, Hollifield and Swanson added to the gritty, stingy defensive intensity. So much so, they held Savannah's leading scorer, Martina Stokes, to just 3 points and forced the Blue Jackets to turn the ball over 24 times. They also held the Blue Jackets to single-digit scoring in the second and third quarters.
"With this team, we've kind of gone after people a little bit more this year -- we’ve been a little more athletic,” House said. “But we felt like, with them (Savannah), and having the post player that they did, we wanted to try to limit her touches and scoring. So, I thought our kids did a great job adjusting and playing the match up the way they did.”
But it wasn't all rosy in the first half.
After the Lady Trojans grabbed a 9-2 lead early in the first quarter, the Blue Jackets closed the quarter on a 10-4 run, ending with the Lady Trojans up by 2, 12-10, and kept it close till late in the second quarter thanks to a boatload of missed layups by the Lady Trojans
"You know we talked about that at halftime," House said about the missed layups. "We still kept getting the shots that we wanted. That was the first half time. We finally got a few to fall, so that's good."
The Lady Trojans finally found its groove late in the second quarter after the Blue Jackets cut it back to a 2-point game, 17-15. Over the final two minutes, Hollifield stroked two long 3-pointers and Swanson added a free throw, ending the quarter on a 7-2 run and taking a 24-17 half-time advantage.
In the second half, the Lady Trojans shook a bad start, rushing out to a 13-point lead off a Gillespie dribble-drive, 34-21, with 1:07 left in the third.
It was at that point the Lady Trojans had a good feeling and kept pouring it on in the final frame. Gillespie added the exclamation point when she hit both of her foul shots with 54 seconds left extending the lead to the game's largest, 53-33.
North Hall will host Morgan County in the quarterfinals next week at home. Morgan County (15-14, Region 8-3A No. 2 seed) pulled off the upset win against Tattnall County on Wednesday to seal the Lady Trojans' next game at home.
"Like we've been preaching since the beginning of the season, we're here for a purpose," House said about advancing. "These kids have been here four years together. They've been in our kids camps since the time they could walk, so for them to be here and to stick with it and to be in this program, their families are in this community, I mean, we're all here for a purpose at this time, and then Morgan winning and putting that little home game cherry on top is so amazing. I'm so happy for our kids and our community. It's great."