RALEIGH Â— Athens Drive girls' basketball coach Chris Danehower decided to change things up a bit.After watching his team struggle a bit in the first half of its NCHSAA 4-A state sectional semifinal matchup against Millbrook (21-7) Thursday, he tried a variation of a zone in the second half Â— a set-up he implemented only a day before. And it worked. AthensÂ’ stingy second-half defense and clutch free-throw shooting propelled it to a 56-45 win for a shot at the sectional final game on Saturday against Garner."The defense is a variation of the 1-3-1 zone, but the coverages are a little better," Danehower said. "We may use it more after this, but it was specifically put in for this game. It definitely bought us some possessions."Earlier in the month, the Jaguars set two other records for the school with Tri-Eight Conference tournament and regular-season titles. With Thursday's victory, Athens set another school record by making it past the second round of the state tournament for the first time.The Jaguars (27-2) jumped to an early 11-0 lead and grabbed six steals in only the first three minutes of play, but Millbrook quickly found a flaw in the JaguarsÂ’ initial defense. Well, primarily guard Crystal Wilson found the flaw.Wilson single-handedly brought her team back in the first half, claiming 18 of itÂ’s 26 points, including a 3-point shot at the buzzer to put the Wildcats ahead 26-23. But it seems a handful of the Athens players knew ahead of time that Wilson would give a good show."Me, Chareya (Smith) and Tyonna (Willingham) play with three of the girls from Millbrook in AAU, including Crystal," Athens point guard Illya Hunt said. "So we kind of knew their style and how they play, but itÂ’s a lot tougher playing against friends."Despite the difficulties of trying to crush their other teammates, the Jaguars never let the Wildcats ahead by more than a couple points, if at all. The nearly 20 minutes worth of cat-and-mouse ended as Athens utilized its new defense and its freshmen Â— Rachel Collins and Markeisha Gatling.Gatling used all 6 feet and 2 inches of her, scoring a couple of put-backs down low to cut the Wildcats lead to 34-33 with less than a minute left in the third quarter. When Hunt attempted a 3-pointer with only seconds remaining, Collins set herself under the basket to grab the rebound and put the ball through the net right before the buzzer to end the third. Athens led 35-34 and never looked back."I was especially proud of my younger kids for coming in and getting big rebounds," Danehower said. "They didnÂ’t play like freshmen. They stepped up big time, and when they play like that, weÂ’re hard to deal with."While Collins and Gatling surprised their coach, the teamÂ’s new defense shut down MillbrookÂ’s shooters and kept the Wildcats from getting easy drives to the basket. Smith and Willingham combined for three steals in the fourth quarter, driving hard on the other end of the floor to score a layup and to draw a couple of Millbrook fouls. Smith led the Jaguars with 15 points.While Wilson scored a game-high 24 points, her team was only able to put up 17 in the second half.The clock wound down and the only game plan the Wildcats were left with was to foul Athens to stop the clock. After a scoreless game for Hunt, her eight-for-eight free-throw shooting in the final minutes were worth the wait. Athens hosts Garner on Saturday at 7 p.m. for the sectional final game Â— a game the Jaguars plan to use their newest weapon."I think weÂ’ll definitely be using it more," Smith said. "ItÂ’s tiring, but weÂ’ll get used to it."Athens Drive 56, Millbrook 45ADR 11 12 12 21 Â— 56
MIL 9 17 8 9 Â— 45ADR: C. Smith 15, M. Gatling 9, R. Kretchman 9, I. Hunt 8, T. Willingham 7, R. Collins 5, R. Stamper 3.
MIL: C. Wilson 24, K. Blake 8, M. Fuller 6, K. H. Degraffinreed 4, Brown 3.