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S. Thomas Coleman

Class AAAAA girls: Southwest DeKalb 59, Forest Park 32

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Kathy Richie-Walton has constructed a beast in Decatur.

Her program at Southwest DeKalb has become synonymous with tenacious defense, explosive yet disciplined offense, and one more thing: winning titles.

The Lady Panthers (30-2) took one more step in that direction Saturday at Fort Valley State University, as they smothered Forest Park (24-9) 59-32 in one Class AAAAA semi final. It is the sixth trip to the state championship game since Walton took over in 2006. Southwest DeKalb, the defending state champion, has won four titles in those six title game appearances.

Saturday’s outcome became apparent late in the first quarter, when the Lady Panthers went on a 9-0 run to turn a 4-4 tie into a 13-4 lead at the end of the period. Forest Park cut the lead to six, midway through the second quarter, after a bucket by Imani Richards made it 16-10.

But Southwest DeKalb went on another quarter-closing run, this time a 13-6 spurt, to go into the locker room with a 29-16 lead. Junior guard Davion Wingate led the charge with 9 points in the period.

The Lady Panthers put the game away for good in the third quarter with their defense. Southwest DeKalb held Forest Park to just one field goal and one free throw – three points – while scoring 12 points on the offensive end to take a 41-19 lead into the final period.

“We pride ourselves on our defense,” Walton said. “We put a lot of focus and emphasis on that in practice.”

Walton said concentration on defense was one of a number of things her team worked on for the week it was out in Phoenix, participating in the Tournament of Champions, one of the most renowned mid-season invitationals in the country. The Lady Panthers went 2-1 on the trip, with the loss coming to Windward of Los Angeles, currently ranked No. 2 in the nation.

But Walton said wins and losses weren’t the main focus of the trip. Improvement was.

“We had a lot of things we really needed to work on,” she said. “Defense, team chemistry, basketball IQ, a whole lot of things. “

Only one parent went along on the trip, and so most of the time the Southwest DeKalb contingent was made up of just Walton, her players and her coaches.

“We were really able to get better and come together as a team,” she said.

And the Lady Panthers have not lost since.

While the finals could bring a rubber-match game against DeKalb County and Region 6 rival Tucker, who Southwest DeKalb defeated in the region tournament championship game, Walton said the focus this week will be on the same things have led the program to its current status.

“It doesn’t matter who we play at this time of the year,” Walton said. “You just want to make sure you’re playing your best and focus on what got us here.”

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