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Salem girls advance to first Elite 8 in school history

Salem coach Rochone Dilligard talks during a timeout during Monday’s game against Kell. The Seminoles will play Wednesday in the state quarterfinals. Staff photo by Kurt Aschermann Jr.

Salem coach Rochone Dilligard talks during a timeout during Monday’s game against Kell. The Seminoles will play Wednesday in the state quarterfinals. Staff photo by Kurt Aschermann Jr.

The Salem girls basketball team was down for nearly the entirety of the first three quarters Monday in the Class AAAAA second round. But once the Conyers school got the lead, it never trailed again.

Taylor King scored all eight of her points in the fourth quarter and the Salem defense held visiting Kell to just five second-half field goals in a 42-32 victory.

Salem (25-3) made history with the victory, advancing to the Elite 8 for the first time in school history. It wasn’t easy as Kell, the No. 4 seed from Region 7, led for the first 23:54 of the game.

Jennifer Tindi took an inbounds pass and converted a lay up with six seconds to play in the third quarter, giving the region 8 runner-up Seminoles their first cushion at 25-24. Kell (13-17) pulled even at 27-27 on Judea Johnson’s 3-pointer at the 6:06 mark of the fourth, but Ayanna Mitchell had a bucket to get Salem started on an 8-0 run that put the game away.

“Halftime, everybody had the same mindset, ‘we’re not going to lose at home,’ said Mitchell, who led all scorers with 15 points. “We knew we were about to make history.”

Now the Seminoles, who were 0-2 all-time in the round of 16 coming into the night, will travel to either region 7 champion Osborne or to region 6 runner-up Tucker, which would be a rematch of last year’s second round game in Conyers won by the Tigers.

“I’m just happy for the kids, they have worked so hard,” said Salem coach Rochone Dilligard. “We knew where they were (after the loss to Tucker) and where they wanted to be.”

Salem played one of its worst halves of the season and trailed by seven at halftime.

Kell didn’t make a single substitution in the opening half and led throughout. Brittany Stocus had four early points and the Kell defense held Salem to one field goal in the first. Mitchell, who scored Salem’s first points at the 3:42 mark of the opening quarter, drained a 3-pointer late in the first, then had a put back 32 seconds into the second that got the Seminoles to within 8-7.

That was as close as Salem would get in the half as the Longhorns made three 3-pointers in the second - two coming from Johnson - and the Cobb County school held a 19-12 advantage at the break.

Salem finally got a basket from someone other than Mitchell (nine first-half points) when Rosie Kyles knocked down a 3-pointer with 2 1/2 minutes to play in the half, allowing Salem to climb to within 17-12.

The visiting Longhorns still held a 22-17 cushion in the third when Santavia Grant had three of her team-high 12 points with 3:16 to play. Shay Tarver, who was playing her second full game since injuring an ankle in the region quarterfinals, had consecutive buckets to make it a 22-21 game. Onyx Henderson hit a basket for Kell, but Kyles grabbed an offensive rebound in the paint and banked in a short jumper, which preceded Tindi’s lay up on a perfect feed from Tarver on the inbounds pass.