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Jaila Salley-Barnett stepped to the free throw line with mere seconds left during last Friday’s game.

The Athens Academy senior guard was intentionally fouled by George Walton Academy, which was desperately trying to escape the Sinkwich Spartan Center with a close victory.

With the Lady Spartans ahead 35-32, Salley-Barnett delivered in the clutch. She sank both of her foul shots, increasing the lead to 37-32.

The Lady Dogs scored seconds later, draining a 3-pointer, but it was not enough to tie the game or take the lead.

Salley-Barnett had given the Lady Spartans all the cushion they needed to earn their first Region 8-A-Private matchup of the season.

“For me personally, I actually love really big shots, just because I guess it gives me a boost to know that I'm helping my team,” Salley-Barnett said after the game. “I just think, ‘Take your time. Shoot the shot like it's a normal shot.’ Don't put the extra pressure on myself. Just relax, get the shot off and hope that I make it. But if I don't, I know I've got to bust it back and get the rebound or just get it back on defense.”

The dramatic victory improved Athens Academy’s record to 10-5, which stood leading into Tuesday’s game against Tallulah Falls, which was held after press time.

The Lady Spartans stacked their non-region schedule, taking on the likes of Oconee County, North Oconee, First Presbyterian Day School, Stratford Academy, Charlotte (North Carolina) Latin, Archbishop Chapelle (Louisiana) and St. Pius X.

Athens Academy head coach Brian Olson said the gauntlet of tough opponents early in the season got his team ready for the rigors of region play.

“We don't beat this team without that experience, honestly,” Olson said. “Coach [Lori] Hines does a fabulous job. I have a tremendous amount of respect for her. They're a really good team and they're going to surprise a lot of people.”

The teams battled throughout last Friday’s game with neither taking a big lead.

George Walton held a 13-12 edge after the first quarter. The Lady Dogs used their noticeable height advantage to string along big plays inside the paint and recover rebounds on the other end of the floor.

But the Lady Spartans got scores from Madeline Ransom, Salley-Barnett and Meredith Reynolds, who dropped two 3-pointers in the opening quarter, to keep pace with George Walton.

In the second quarter, the teams kept trading blows. Athens Academy gained a 7-point lead thanks to consecutive 3-pointers by Reynolds and Adair Marvel with 2:15 left in the second quarter.

Despite a brief surge by the Lady Dogs, Athens Academy held a 22-17 halftime lead.

There were missed shots during the third quarter but effective rebounding gave the Lady Spartans second-chance opportunities, which helped them build a lead.

The score remained close throughout the fourth period until the Lady Dogs went into foul mode, which is what sent Salley-Barnett to the line for her critical free throws.

Athens Academy did not score an exorbitant amount of points but the Lady Spartans’ 37 points was better than the average allowed by George Walton: 29 points.

Reynolds said that she and her teammates just wanted to protect the ball, knowing that would lead to successful possessions.

“I think, offensively, we just focused on executing, maintaining the ball and not making bad turnovers,” Reynolds said. “They're obviously a bigger team than we are, so just being strong and trusting each other was the biggest thing.”

Salley-Barnett led the way with 13 points. Maddy Wicker finished with 6 points, Sally Bullard had 4 points and Ransom had 2 points.

Reynolds dropped 9 points, all of which came via 3-pointers that proved crucial to the flow of the game.

“With the 3-pointers, I knew that my teammates trust me to keep shooting,” Reynolds said. “Even when I'm not making them, I can trust them down low to get the rebounds. We always are saying, 'Good shot, keeping shooting.' Just having that trust in each other helps a lot.”

That encouraging attitude permeated the Lady Spartans.

Olson said that was the key ingredient to the victory.

“Our girls believed,” Olson said. “Our senior leadership makes a huge difference. We had a few key buckets down the stretch that I think our execution and the way that we played coming through those tournaments (earlier this season) helped us win this game. I'm really proud of our girls. When it comes to this type of play, it really comes down to their effort, their attitude and their togetherness.”

Athens Academy is now in the thick of region play.

The Lady Spartans played Tallulah Falls earlier this week and are set to host Prince Avenue Christian this Friday.

With these games counting toward region tournament seeding, Olson said the Lady Spartans must keep progressing.

“We've got some things we need to clean up,” he said. “I need to do a little bit better job as a coach with that. But I'm really proud with who they are and how they're coming along. This part of the season right now is all about that region seeding. All of these coaches in this region are really good coaches with good teams, so there's not gonna be a night that we can just show up (and win). I never worry about that with our team. It's about staying healthy, it's about continuing to do it together and continuing to build on what we do defensively.”

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