ATLANTA — The Newton Lady Rams ended their season playing in the last game it could possibly play in when it met up with No. 1 Westlake Saturday night in the Class AAAAAAA state championship game.
It was only the second time in school history that a girls basketball team would play for a state crown, and the first time since 1963. Newton fell 60-45 to Westlake, also regarded the 16th-ranked team in the nation, according to MaxPreps’ Xcellent 25 rankings.
Sportswriter Tyler Williams was part of The Covington News’ comprehensive coverage of Saturday’s game, and here he gives five quick takes on what he saw and learned from Newton’s season finale.
1. Rebounds and Free Throws decided the game. The Lady Rams only trailed by four points with two minutes to go in the game. However, several trips to the free throw line by Westlake shut down any comeback attempt, and ensured that they would take the Class AAAAAAA crown. The Lady Rams only mustered 39 total rebounds against the Lady Lions 52, 31 of which were defensive. Westlake also attempted nine more free throws and made 61 percent of them over Newton’s 52 percent. Many of Westlake’s free throws came within crunch time, and were attempted by Anastasia Warren and Raven Johnson, who were headaches for the Lady Rams all night. With Warren, think a more savvy, drive-to-the-basket minded Jasmine Carson. Carson was the McEachern sharpshooter who lit Newton up with 13 first-half points in last week’s semifinal, before the Lady Rams essentially took her out of the game in the second half. Warren is a more well-rounded player, and kept finding ways to get her offense. That was the difference.
2. The game was closer than the final score indicates. Throw that final tally out the window, because up until the last two minutes, this one was a nail biter. The Lady Lions built a slim 12-7 lead after the first, but Newton rallied back to take a 24-23 halftime advantage, and led by as many as four points during a couple of moments in the game. Although Westlake led for nearly 22 minutes of the game compared to Newton’s five, the two teams experienced eight lead changes in addition to several moments where the score remained tied for a while.
3. If Diamond Swift was on, it could’ve been a much different result. Despite Jurnee Smith posting 25 points, and Lexii Chatman dropping 13, no other player scored more than four points in the game. After one of the Lady Rams’ last practices, coach Tiffani Johnson made note that Diamond Swift would likely be the X-factor of the game, giving Newton a third scorer that even the best defenses would have trouble countering. However, Swift uncharacteristically shot 1-for-10 from the field Saturday, including 0-4 from 3-point range, and totaled just two points in the entire contest. It seemed clear that part of Westlake’s game plan was to take away any viable third scoring threat.
4. The Lady Rams, and their fans have several reason to be proud. While the game ended in heartbreaking fashion, this Lady Rams squad will still go down in history. The 2017-2018 group was the first team to make it to a State championship since 1963, the first to win a region tournament in five years and, along with the boys’ team, became part of the first pair of county schools to make a Final Four in the same season. Not only that, the Rams showed incredible will and determination all season long. The fans showed up and showed out for every game, and never once was there any doubt that this entire squad was the real deal. Yes, they absolutely deserved a state title, but more importantly, they will forever go down in Newton history was one of the best units to ever step foot on the court.
5. There is a more-than-bright future ahead inside the gym of 1 Ram Way. After one practice, as Johnson discussed Jurnee Smith’s increased college recruiting attention, she quipped that if Smith went for 25 against the No. 1 team in the state, that attention could keep coming. Well, 25 points is exactly what the 5-foot-7 guard scored Saturday night. She’s a part of a group of six seniors, including Lexi Chatman, Takiya Cotton, Erianna Card, who have some legit chances to play college ball. But with their departure, Newton’s cupboard isn’t bare. The Lady Rams return two top players in Diamond Swift, who could arguably become the leader of the team come next season, but key contributors like Jada Franklin, Rachel Hilliard and Je-nya Smith, who unfortunately missed the state title game due to a knee injury sustained in the Final Four, will help bolster a squad that now has the lingering taste of championship greatness on their palate.