It was all smiles for the Newton Lady Rams in their last practice of the 2017-18 season Friday.
Newton will play nationally ranked Westlake in Saturday’s Georgia High School Association Class AAAAAAA girls state championship game. It’s uncharted territory for Newton and coach Tiffani Johnson. And that’s saying something, considering she’s going into her 13th season as head coach and she played for Newton in the late 1990s.
And although that sounds like a lot of nerves and pressure, Johnson said she’s made a concerted effort to strike the balance of preparing for the biggest game of all their lives, while also embracing the fact that it’s still basketball and it’s still supposed to be fun.
“I don’t want to stress them out,” Johnson said. “I don’t want it to be so intense that we add to the pressure that’s already there. But tat the same time, this is our 32nd game. If by now we don’t know what we do and how we play, I’m not sure what we can do at this moment. So I just want to keep everybody’s spirits high. I don’t want to put any nervousness on them that may not be there by me being more intense than I have to be.”
Johnson gave some insight on what she’s expecting to see from a Westlake team whose only loss this season came in a 77-73 setback in the Naples Holiday Shootout Tournament to Mercer County, the No. 1 team in Kentucky and the No. 11 team in the nation, based on MaxPreps’ Xcellent 25 rankings.
“They’re a scrappy team.” Johnson said. “They get after it. They hustle. They’re longer than we are, and they have a good point guard with long arms. I think she’s had like 100 steals this season. They’re athletic like we are and they crash the boards. Very similar to McEachern in tradition and how they play.”
That, Johnson said, could be a good or bad thing depending on how Newton starts things out.
“We don’t want to build the kind of hole against them that we did with McEachern,” she said. “We know that we deserve to be here. And the fact that we got past that (against McEachern) let’s us know that we have what it takes to go out there and make this thing happen on Saturday."
Here’s a closer look at how Newton and Westlake will match up in Saturday’s championship game:
The Matchup: No. 6 Newton Rams (28-3, 9-2 in Region 8-AAAAAAA) vs. No. 1 Westlake (29-1, 10-0 in Region 2-AAAAAAA). Westlake is also considered the No. 16 team in the nation, according to MaxPreps’ Xcellent 25 writers poll.
The Venue: Saturday March 10, 6 p.m. at Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion, 965 Fowler St., Atlanta, GA, on the Georgia Tech campus. Tickets are $15 dollars at the gate.
Live Broadcast and replays: This game, along with all GHSA state championship games, will be broadcast live at nfhsnetwork.com. There’s also a replay option and the option to purchase DVDs of each championship game.
The Playmakers: Newton could be down one of its solid contributors, depending on the news regarding a possible knee strain sustained by sophomore Je-Naya Smith. But the Lady Rams are deep, and even if Smith can’t go, players Johnson won’t feel bad about giving more clock to players like Jada Franklin and Rachel Hilliard. Of course Lexii Chatman and Jurnee Smith are the mainstays. But junior Diamond Swift’s play could be the x-factor. When her game is on and her shot is falling, Swift provides a third scorer that makes defensive matchups tough.
For Westlake, keep an eye on 6-foot-1 senior Taylor Hosendove and 5-foot-7 combo guard Anastasia Warren. Both players average 11.4 points per game, but also watch out for freshman Raven Johnson, another combo guard, listed at 5-foot-8, who has length and can score. She’s averaging 10.6 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.4 steals per game.
The Outlook: While watching Saturday’s game, if you start getting the feeling that you’ve seen Westlake play somewhere before, don’t feel funny about it. While Westlake and McEachern are, indeed, different teams, they mirror each other quite a bit in terms of personnel — both teams are long and athletic — and style of play. Westlake wants to get out and run. So does Newton. So with the Lady Rams having seen — and conquered — the speed and athleticism that McEachern brought, it stands to reason that Newton, at least feels reasonably confident that it can compete. Here’s an underrated factoid about this game: Everyone knows that this is Newton’s first state championship game since 1963. But what may be surprising to some is the fact that Westlake, with all its tradition of producing Division I players and making deep runs in the state tournament, is also playing in its first state championship game in program history. So no real state title experience factor at work in this matchup.