LOGANVILLE -- The Salem girls basketball team has come a long way in a year, and following a victory Thursday in the Region 8-AAAA semifinals, the Seminoles have the opportunity to take that journey a step further.
Ayanna Mitchell scored 14 points and Shay Tarver added 10 as Salem defeated Flowery Branch 38-31 to advance to the region championship game at Loganville High School.
Salem (19-7), coming off a five-win season in 2010-11, will play Habersham Central today at 7 p.m.
"To have this opportunity to do something we felt like we wanted to do in October ... it's not (yet a region title), but it's a stepping stone for the program," said first-year Salem coach Rochone Dilligard.
With less than a minute to play, the freshman Mitchell came down hard on her right knee and left the game, appearing to be in a lot of pain.
"You never know until you see it, we'll get it looked at," Dilligard said of Mitchell's knee after the game. "She's a soldier."
Salem took the lead for good with a long run that extended into the third quarter. Brianna Bush came off the bench to team with Shay Tarver, and the duo hit consecutive 3-pointers in the first two minutes of the third, capping a 10-0 run that put the Seminoles ahead 24-15 at the 6:15 mark.
Salem's lead grew to 10 points, but the Falcons stormed back and closed to within 28-25 after a 9-2 run. The Seminoles got a 3-pointer from Mitchell, a runner in the lane by Tarver and another bucket from Mitchell to go up 35-27 with 2:52 to play. The Seminoles were up eight when Mitchell leapt for a loose ball and landed awkwardly on her right knee, which led to a layup by Jacy Ramey. Those were the last points for Flowery Branch.
"They stepped up big," Dilligard said.
It was a defensive struggle in the first half and Salem went into the locker room up 18-15. Ramey had eight points in the opening 16 minutes, including a bucket off a pass from Marissa Ivey that gave Flowery Branch a brief 15-14 lead. Salem, which struggled throughout the first part of the game from the perimeter, finally got some outside help. Following an offensive rebound from Autumn Smith, Brianna Bush drained a 3-pointer to put the Seminoles up three at the break.
Strong play on the offensive glass was a major theme for Salem in the opening half. Mitchell, who scored nine points in the first, had a pair of put backs, the last of which she completed for a three-point play. Later, Danielle Thomas corralled a rebound and hit a short jump shot to give Salem an 8-7 lead.
Salem fell to Loganville in the first boys semifinal of the night 60-54. The Seminoles held a 47-43 lead after Dedrick Turner had a putback at the 6:15 mark, then five quick points allowed the Red Devils to grab the lead back at 48-47 at the 4:46 mark. Jamaal Garror had a three-point play that gave Salem a 50-48 cushion, but the No. 2 seed Seminoles wouldn't enjoy a lead the rest of the way.
Nick Ackerman was held scoreless through the first 3 quarters of the game, but came up with consecutive field goals to put Loganville up 52-50 at the 2:23 mark. Marques McKoy tied it at 52-52 on a lay up off a feed from Caneshe Green, but the No. 4 seed Red Devils scored the next eight points to put the game away.
Salem (18-8), which was trying to get back to the region title game for the second straight season but had its five-game winning streak snapped, will play in the third-place game today at 5:30 p.m. against the loser of Rockdale-Cedar Shoals. Oliver Banks led all scorers with 17 points and D.J. Evans added 11 for Loganville (17-11). For Salem, Turner and McKoy scored 12 points each.