ATLANTA, Ga. - In the end, Westlake had too much height and size, and Newton made too few free throws and close shots as the No. 1 Lady Lions defeated Newton 60-45, ending the Lady Rams’ quest to clinch its first state championship.
"Rebounding and free-throws," said Newton coach Tiffani Johnson, in a succinct summarization of what doomed her Lady Rams. "That's pretty much what it came down to. We didn't control the boards, and they were able to get some put-backs. We were trying to cut into the lead, and then toward the end we had some crucial turnovers, and through the game, our free-throw shooting just kept us from ever being able to hold a lead."
Westlake out-rebounded Newton 52-39 in the game, but the most telling advantage was on the defensive glass where the Lions grabbed 31 defensive boards to Newton's 19.
Neither team particularly lit it up from the free-throw line, as Newton shot just 52 percent while Westlake connected on 61 percent of its attempts at the charity stripe. But Newton's 12 missed foul shots, combined with a couple of point-blank misses on layups, could've been the difference in the Lady Rams getting a ring instead of a runners-up trophy.
"We missed a lot of layups under the basket," Johnson said. "Lexii (Chatman) got into foul trouble, and she gives us a little bit of our juice on offense, although I think Jurnee did a great job taking the ball inside for us today."
Smith scored a game-high 25 points and was the lone bright spot for the Rams at the charity stripe, as she sank 9-of-12 from there.
But overall, it was just an off night, Johnson said -- a night where she watched her team oscillate between being slightly overwhelmed at the lights and the stage early and trying to do too much late in the game.
"I think that's what happened in the first quarter," Johnson said. "We got here and it wasn't organized, and we didn't get the chance to even get the girls out on the floor before hand. I don't know if that generated anymore anxiety or nervousness than what was already there. I just think offensively we didn't play as a team and we just tried to throw it on a couple people's shoulders, and we just weren't able to generate baskets when we needed to."
Newton still had it's chances, however -- even late into the fourth quarter.
Westlake was trying to hold a 43-36 lead with just over three minutes left when Smith sank a bucket while being fouled. The 3-point play shaved Westlake's lead down to five points with just under five minutes left in regulation.
After Jada Franklin's trip to the line a couple of possessions later, the Rams cut the Westlake lead to 45-41 with two minutes left, following their final timeout.
However, in crunch time, a double-dribble violation called against Smith and a traveling call against Diamond Swift helped ignited a game-clinching Lady Lions run that included several successful trips to the free-throw line that allowed Westlake to pad the score.
It proved to be a bit of an anti-climatic ending to an otherwise nip-tuck game throughout.
After a low scoring first quarter, Westlake generated a slim 12-7 lead on the Lady Rams. However, the Rams stormed back in the second quarter, thanks in part to hot shooting by Smith who accounted for 12 of the Lady Rams' 24 first-half points. It helped Newton to a 24-23 halftime lead.
The tight battle continued throughout the third as well, but an 8-0 spurt in the final three minutes of the third seemed to signal the first major momentum shift in Westlake's favor. During that run, Westlake's Anastasia Warren drained a pair of 3-pointers as part of her 22-point performance.
The loss finished Newton's season at 28-4 overall, and though it left Johnson and company with some broken hearts and tear-stained faces, Johnson said the message to her team in the postgame locker room was to see magnificence in the kind of season they had.
"I told them they have nothing to hang their heads about," she said. "It was a wonderful experience to play on that stage. That's something that can't be taken away. Yes, the ring would've made it sweeter, but I'm happy we made it here. We proved some naysayers wrong. I would've loved to come away with a win, but it doesn't negate the positivity and progress of putting Newton on the map."
Sportswriter Tyler Williams contributed to this report.