BUFORD, Ga. — Tiffani Johnson had just finished giving interviews to a group of reporters gathered around her and several of her players following Saturday’s 65-57 Class AAAAAAA semifinals win over defending state champion McEachern.
She’d talked about her team’s ability to fight. About her ongoing mantra that “basketball is a game of runs.” She even came close to shedding tears as she discussed how one of her players battled through the internal pain of losing a close loved one.
But she wasn’t through yet. Johnson, the long-time Newton girls basketball coach, and a former Lady Ram herself, had one more thing to say, and she wanted everyone within earshot to hear it.
“Media people,” Johnson shouted out. “I have a quote that I want everyone to put into their newspapers.”
She motioned to the guy holding the Fox 5 News camera to turn on the light press record one more time. And then she grabbed several of her seniors and pulled them around as she stood in the middle of them, and did what good coaches do.
She became their biggest advocate.
“One thing I want to say is McEachern has somebody going to Georgia Tech,” Johnson began. “Had a hurt player going to Indiana. None of my girls are signed, and you see what we just did. Why not? It’s not me. It’s not them. Somebody’s missing something. These girls need to be on somebody’s team next year. I think they deserved it. They’re hard workers. I’m just waiting on some phone calls.”
On the opposite side of the team benches where players and coaches sat, there was a special section of chairs reserved exclusively for college coaches.
And there were a handful of them there, watching. Here’s what they saw.
They saw a savvy combo guard in Lexii Chatman who shot her way out of a first-half slump and into a 21-point game where she knocked down a barrage of 3-pointers, including the one that gave Newton it’s first lead at 49-47 at the 5:40 mark in the fourth quarter.
Newton never trailed again after that shot.
But what she also showed was a penchant for nifty ball handling combined with the kind of speed that makes her almost impossible to frustrate in full court press situations. Chatman is also a more-than-solid defender. In two full seasons covering the Lady Rams, I don’t need an entire hand of fingers to count how many times a guard has been able to blow by her — including the speedy guards on the roster of a back-to-back-to-back-to-back state champion.
They saw the headiness and poise of Jurnee Smith, and her knack for knowing when to force the issue as a point guard, and when to pull back and reset tempo. And in the two toughest games on the biggest, brightest stages of her career, Smith had the calm demeanor and disposition needed to knock down clutch, game-clinching free throws over and over again.
They saw the defensive prowess of Smith, Erianna Card and Takiya Cotton as they swarmed McEachern’s hot-shooting guard Jasmine Carson. Overall, Newton’s defense limited McEachern to just six second-half field goals. Impressive, considering the Lady Indians made eight field goals in the first quarter alone.
They saw junior Diamond Swift shake off a bad first half to drain several key buckets and free throws.
Comprehensively, they saw a group of girls, many of whom have been playing together since the fourth grade, become the ultimate team to halt a state girls basketball juggernaut. And Johnson said her phone has been ringing a bit more with some college recruiters checking for some of her seniors.
- We heard it: Lots of talking. Defensive communication. Offensive strategizing, and a little bit of laughter thrown in. At one point in practice, Johnson grabbed Jada Franklin and shook her while yelling something at her to make her laugh. The Lady Rams seemed to be making it a point to stay loose and make their last game in pursuit for the program’s first ever state championship as stress-free of a situation as possible. We also heard Newton cheerleaders in the auxiliary gym practicing as well. For a minute it felt like it was already game day.
- We saw it: In a cool showing of cross-county support, several Eastside High administrators stood outside of their school’s electronic message board and shouted their vote of support to the Lady Rams ahead of Saturday’s Class AAAAAAA state championship game with Westlake. That was major cool. Also seen…Rachel Hilliard. The 5-foot-9 junior ran the floor brilliantly on a couple of trips down the court during Wednesday’s practice. Hilliard emerging prowess as a low-post presence has been something the Rams have exponentially benefited from in the postseason, particularly.
- Rested Rams: After playing two high-intensity games in uncharted territory, Newton will have an entire seven days between its semifinal game with McEachern and its state championship matchup against Westlake. And while Johnson’s glad for the rest, she’s hoping it doesn’t stall out their mojo. “It’s a gift, and I’m hoping it doesn’t turn into a curse,” she said. “Sometimes when you’re playing well it’s good to keep playing. But those games were stressful, and I think they needed the time to decompress.”
- Injury report: One of the few negatives to emerge out of Newton’s comeback win against McEachern was the loss of sophomore Je-Naya Smith. Smith crumpled to the court after a Newton offensive possession and had to be helped off. During Wednesday’s practice she alternated between riding a stationary bike and standing with an ice pack over her injured leg. Johnson said they’d know more about her condition after an MRI on Friday. “Even if it’s just a sprain, I don’t know if mentally she’d be ready to come out and go,” she said. “It’d definitely be nice. But we’re hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.”