ORANGEBURG, S.C. - Only two minutes and eight seconds had ticked off the clock in the first quarter, but Lee Central's Latangela Atkinson was shaking her head with a grin.
She already knew.
After Atkinson had forced Barnwell's leading scorer Melanie Johnson into committing her second foul with 5:52 remaining in the opening period, she must have figured the game was, for the most part, over. Never mind Lee Central was losing by three points.
Atkinson ended up being right.
Atkinson scored 29 of her game-high 37 points in the first half, and once Johnson picked up her third foul early in the second quarter to send her to the bench, the Lady Stallions built up an impenetrable lead to beat Barnwell 56-46 on Tuesday at Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School in the Class AA girls state semifinals.
Atkinson's head-shaking prediction was just as accurate as her shooting game.
"In 13 years of coaching, I've never seen anything like Latangela," Barnwell coach Carol Massengale said. "If I had, I might have had an answer for her."
Instead, the University of North Carolina-signee ended Barnwell's (25-4) season.
And all Johnson could do for most of the first half was sit and watch.
"Those three early fouls on me really hurt us," said Johnson, who led Barnwell with 21 points and 10 rebounds. "Latangela was better than I thought she'd be. She was quicker than I thought."
Which translated into many easy layups for Atkinson. When the Lady Warhorses' defense collapsed on her when she was penetrating, Atkinson - who also had 12 rebounds and seven assists but missed six free throws - would dish to an open teammate.
After Johnson's third foul put her on the bench with 6:07 in the first half, Atkinson put on a show, connecting on three 3-pointers and using her athleticism and quickness to build a 35-21 lead going into intermission.
"With Melanie on the bench, that hurt us a lot," said Massengale, whose team also got a 13-point effort from Shaniqua Hammonds. "She's our go-to girl, and once she came out, our offense shut down. When you take her out, you lose rebounding and ball handling."
Johnson showed her usefulness in the third quarter when she helped the Lady Warhorses' to a 10-3 run to cut the lead to seven going into the fourth quarter.
Unfortunately for Barnwell, Johnson's first-half absence was too much to overcome.
"I knew (Johnson) could take over the game," Lee Central (27-1) coach Dorothy Fortune said. "So our strategy was to match Latangela up with her. Once you have two great players like that, one will try to show the other that she's better. I thought Latangela was a little bit faster, and I figured (Johnson) would try to block her shots and would end up fouling her. She fell right into the trap."
Lee Central will play Columbia High, which defeated Chapman 61-35 on Tuesday, for the state title.
Reach Josh Katzowitz at (706) 823-3216 or firstname.lastname@example.org