With three top-10 teams in the state all chasing after the No. 1 seed for the upcoming Region 7-AAAAA Tournament, it fittingly came down to the final weekend of the regular season to determine who would claim that top spot.
And Friday night's bout between the Villa Rica High School girls' basketball team and Rome had all the hallmarks of a signature showdown, where the host Lady Cats took the Lady Wolves' best shot and responded with a second-half rally to secure the 78-66 victory.
Now with a one-game lead over both No. 7 Rome (21-3, 13-2 Region 7-AAAAA) and No. 8 Carrollton (19-5, 13-2), No. 6 Villa Rica (19-1, 14-1) can lock down the No. 1 seed with a win over Hiram (10-15, 7-8) on Saturday evening at 6 in the regular-season finale leading into next week's region tournament. Rome and Carrollton play on Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m. in Carrollton for the right to the No. 2 seed should VR take care of business against the Lady Hornets..
As for Friday's Senior Night festivities, the Lady Wildcats completely altered the complexity of the game midway through the third quarter.
Trailing 48-41 following a 3-pointer by Rome's Justyce Moore, VR went to its full-court press and rattled off a 15-2 run to close out the period and take a 56-50 lead into the fourth quarter on Emmy Parham's trey just before the third-quarter buzzer.
From there, Villa Rica put the game away for a 12-point margin that doesn't reflect just how intense this contest was for the better part of 32 minutes.
"I'm just so proud of this group. Just effort, execution there in the fourth quarter. They were in foul trouble, we were in foul trouble. It came down to I thought we made some good decisions there late in the game and we got a lot off of our press. I'm just proud of the effort the girls gave (Friday)," VR head coach Tammy Norred said.
VR outscored the visitors 47-33 in the second half, but it was a different story for the opening 16 minutes of the night, where the Lady Wolves were imposing their will on Norred's squad.
Rome raced out to a 9-0 lead in the opening minutes before the Lady Cats gathered themselves and clawed back in it, pulling within 14-13 by the end of the first quarter.
VR took its first lead of the evening early in the second quarter and built as big as a four-point advantage, but the Lady Wolves closed the period on a 12-6 run to take a 33-31 lead into the locker room.
Rome did the bulk of its damage offensively from behind the arc, burying six 3-pointers in the opening half, while forcing 11 VR turnovers that led to some easy transition buckets.
Early in the third quarter, Rome went from outside to inside and began feeding its big target in the post, resulting in senior forward Taya Gibson scoring seven quick points and helping the Lady Wolves extend their two-point halftime advantage to eight.
But after Gibson was whistled for her fourth foul at the 4:16 mark of the third quarter, VR made its move, forcing several turnovers of its own and getting 11 points from junior standout Deasia Merrill to ignite the 15-2 run.
"That's when we went to our full-court pressure and I think that's what gave us the boost. They hadn't had pressure all night long, so I think it just kind of changed the momentum when we went to our full court-pressure," Norred said.
Rome pulled within four early in the fourth quarter, but would get no closer as the Lady Wildcats dominated the late stages of the game to seal the deal.
Merrill finished with a game-high 23 points to go along with 15 rebounds, five blocked shots and four steals, while Kyndal Coleman added 14 points, seven rebounds and five steals, Parham and Aliyah Hindsman scored 13 each and Jaila Orozco finished with seven points and nine rebounds.
Rome was led by Taya Gibson with 18 points, while Tarrah Gibson added 15 points and nine rebounds.
Not to be lost in the shuffle was the play of sophomore guard Dekyia Cofield, who came off the bench and scored four points — but more importantly handled Rome's perimeter pressure — to provide quality minutes with Hindsman in foul trouble for much of the night.
"Huge. Probably the best game this season for her. Cofield is just a sophomore, but she was composed and did a great job. She gave us some big minutes," Norred said.
Norred was also excited for her four seniors — Parham, Orozco, Lexi Cooley and Aluntrice Pass — in being able to enjoy Senior Night with a big win.
"It's great recognition for them. I told the girls that it's a lot easier to celebrate our Senior Night coming off a victory," Norred said.
If the Lady Wildcats take care of business and lock up the No. 1 seed on Saturday night against Hiram, they would host the winner of Monday's No. 8 Paulding County/No. 9 East Paulding play-in game on Tuesday in the quarterfinal round of the Region 7-AAAAA Tournament. The semifinals and finals will be held at Paulding County High School on Thursday and Friday.
"At this point in the season, with the region tournament coming up you're playing back-to-back. It's just a matter of getting back your focus and get ready for the next one. That's what we've got to do for Hiram," Norred said.