CONYERS - Keeley Chester scored 21 points and Kayla Richards added 11 as Forsyth Central defeated the Salem girls, 48-39 in the first round of the Class AAAA state basketball playoffs Friday.
While the No. 10-ranked and No. 3 seed Bulldogs (20-9) move on to next week's second round, No. 2 seed Salem's season ended at 19-9.
Central never trailed, but had what was a double-digit cushion reduced to four at 40-36 when Nikkira Brown (team-high 20 points) knocked down a 3-pointer off a feed from Shay Tarver (11 points, two assists) with 2:14 to play in the game. That was as close as the Seminoles would get as Central hit 8 of 10 free throws down the stretch.
"They're fighters, they went down fighting. This has been the case all year long," said first-year Salem coach Rochone Dilligard. "I'm so proud of them. It's been an absolutely marvelous season."
Forsyth Central came out firing from 3-point range and looked poised to run away with the first round game. Richards nailed a pair of threes and a short jumper in the lane, and Chester added a 3-pointer to give the Bulldogs an early 11-5 lead. Salem had trouble finding points and after Kayla Bennett's steal led to a three-point play and Chester knocked down a shot at the buzzer, Central had an 18-7 lead after one. The Seminoles went on a run of their own in the second, getting to within five when Danielle Thomas' steal and lay up capped a 9-0 spurt. But Chester calmly drilled a 3-pointer from the top of the key, then again knocked down a buzzer-beater, this time from long range to send Central into the locker room up 28-17.
"They stepped up and hit some big shots," Dilligard said of Forsyth Central. "They're a good team."
Chester was held scoreless in the third, but assisted on a pair of baskets, the last of which came on a three by Morganne Shobe (nine points) to make it a 33-23 game at the 3:26 mark. Brown hit a jumper and a 3-pointer mid-way through the fourth to help keep it a two-possession game.
"This is only going to make us better," Dilligard said. "These are great kids. When you've got kids willing to work, it makes me look a lot smarter than I am."