Unfortunately, the dream ended there after the Wildcats fell 63-24 in the Class 6A semifinal.
Forest was the first team to score. But that shot, like the 26 others the Wildcats would attempt, didn’t come easy.
Forest junior Brenen Lorient would score the opening points of the night with an acrobatic put-back tip-in.
But acrobatics and the raw size of Forest’s roster only went so far against a team as sound as Bartow, the reigning 6A champions.
Eventually the Wildcats’ ran out of answers as the Yellow Jackets rolled to victory. The defeat ended Forest’s longest postseason run since the 1972-73 season.
Forest trailed at halftime in each of its last five games. And Thursday was no different as Bartow took an 11-point lead into the intermission.
While Ashley reminded his team that they had overcome a halftime deficit before, this time was different.
Bartow outscored Forest 35-7 in the second half.
“I think that’s what makes Bartow special,” Ashley said. “Bartow has that experience and their pressure is unreal.”
KJei Parker led Bartow offensively with 15 points and went 3-for-3 from downtown. The Yellow Jacket’s deep bench contributed another 21 points.
But their defense was the MVP.
Outsized by Forest, which touts a 6-foot-8 duo in Lorient and Elijah Russell, Bartow overwhelmed the Wildcats before they could get the ball to their big men.
“We have to press,” Bartow head coach Terrence McGriff said. “It’s a Polk County thing. We believe in pressing. It’s our advantage. We’re kinda country bumpkins. And we’re proud of it… Let’s be country bumpkins and get after it and press. We have to do that… If this was a half court game? They’re too big.”
The Wildcats committed 26 turnovers during Thursday night’s game. Meanwhile, the Yellow Jackets scored 30 points off of turnovers, while only turning over the ball 11 times.
Russell, who sank the game-winner to put Forest in the Final Four last Friday, led the Wildcats. The junior notched nine points, nine rebounds and dished two assists in the loss. Lorient contributed seven points and four rebounds.
Despite the loss, the Wildcats’ roster features 10 juniors, a freshman and just one senior. Forest’s varsity basketball team could look identical next season.
“For us to get here this year, I think it’s going to pay huge dividends because these guys have gotten a taste of it,” Ashley said. “They’ve seen it. They’ve played on the floor… My goal is that it pushes us next year and that this is what we think about.”
But before Ashley and the Wildcats think about next season, they’ll take some time off.
“I’m going to go spend some time with my daughter and my wife. And they’re going to go spend some time with their family,” Ashley said. “But then we’re going to get right back to it.”