These are the moments that a prep basketball player lives for.
In the final seconds of Tuesday's game against Jefferson County, Harlem's Sharday Taylor was about to be the hero. Her team trailed by two when the ball bounced into her hands.
Taylor sprinted downcourt and the home crowd cheered in unison.
At Evans High School, meanwhile, Ashley Brodhecker and her teammates were taking on North Augusta. The Tuesday game was being filmed for a television rebroadcast, so the Lady Knights had a perfect opportunity to showcase their skills before a broader audience.
For senior centers Taylor and Brodhecker, being the center of attention isn't all it's cracked up to be.
Taylor's fast break ended in failure, as her last-second lay-up bounced off the back rim and the Lady Dogs were stuck with a 38-36 defeat.
"That was embarrassing," said Taylor, who had played tremendously before the final miss. "I don't know what was going through my head. The goal kept moving."
At Evans, it seemed everything was moving in slow motion for the Lady Knights. Everything, that is, except the Lady Yellowjackets.
North Augusta ran to a 71-12 rout, and all the gory details will soon come to Comcast - and Brodhecker isn't anxious to relive the misery through the magic of television.
"It was a horrible experience," she said. "Knowing the game was being taped was even more stressful. It's hard to get over a loss like that, but you have to move on."
Full steam ahead
The girls at Harlem and Evans are fighting for more than wins this season.
"I hope we gain more respect as a team," Brodhecker said. "We want to do better against the good teams than we did against North Augusta."
Taylor also wants to silence the critics. "People talk a lot of junk about us, but they're not out here trying to help us out. When we lose I get very upset. I guarantee a victory the next time we play Jefferson County."
Desire doesn't disguise the reality.
Harlem hasn't won a Region 3-AAA game in three years, and the Lady Dogs have posted just three wins this season. Evans has never won a regular-season game in Region 7-AAAAA, and the Lady Knights have earned only three victories this season, including two over Harlem.
But in their coaches' eyes, these teams are winners.
"They never lack for hustle or effort, and they never give up. It's nice to have players like that," Harlem coach Melissa Chase said. "I wish that we could win some games based on effort, but there are some things you can't control. Sometimes the ball falls in, and sometimes it doesn't."
Evans coach Tim Whitfield said, "The players might not have an overall perspective of things, but I see the improvement. I'm proud of them. They haven't quit."
Taylor, Jazmine Quintyne and Christa Pouler are the only seniors on the Harlem roster. The rest of the players are sophomores and freshmen, including talented tenth-graders April Woodard and Beyra Ortega.
Evans features senior leaders Brodhecker, Meredith Weare, Marquita Grimes and Kim Millward. Junior point guard Bekah Gibbs is a gritty player, and freshman Lauren Middleton also is in the mix.
The Lady Knights pay the price at practice, but no amount or work can bridge the gap between Evans and its region opponents from Atlanta.
"These kids are being asked to play against some of the top teams in the state's highest classification," Whitfield said. "A lot of athletes at this school have gone through the same thing."
Losing a basketball game, whether it's by two points or 50 points, is frustrating for the players at Harlem and Evans.
Either way, there's a loss of confidence. Being written off as a lost cause is even worse.
"People can't just look at a box score and say, 'Oh, they got their butts kicked 71-12, so they must not be a very good team,"' Brodhecker said. "Actually, in the past four years we've become a whole lot better. The future looks pretty good at Evans."
Court success runs in cycles. Five years ago, the Harlem girls qualified for the state playoffs. Lean times followed for the Lady Dogs, but the team should be on the upswing in the coming seasons.
"We have a young team, and I can tell they're improving, every day, every game, every practice," Chase said. "If you have a couple of good players, you can turn things around."
As a senior, Sharday Taylor won't be around to see the results, but in her four seasons with Harlem, she helped lay the foundation. "If everybody stays together, they will have an awesome team next year," she said.
Ashley Brodhecker's in the same boat.
"I try to look on the bright side," she said. "Even if I'm not on the winning team, eventually this program is going to turn around and be better than it is now."
Evans will drop down to Class AAAA next season, which means no more mismatches with dominant Atlanta-area squads. The Lady Knights will enter Region 2-AAAA, and will get to compete against Columbia County foes Lakeside and Greenbrier.
The phrase, 'Wait 'til next year' never sounded so good.
"In the new region there's a light at the end of the tunnel," Whitfield said. "At least one Columbia County school will make it to the state playoffs in basketball. The main thing is there will be hope."
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