The McEachern Lady Indians have been on top of the Georgia high school basketball world for the last four seasons, and five of the past six, so a Newton Lady Rams squad making its first semifinals appearance in almost five decades may be seen by some as the unlikely squad to do it. But not to coach Tiffani Johnson. The 13-year leader of Newton girls basketball spoke of with Sports Editor Gabriel Stovall about the reasons for her confidence heading into Saturday's Final Four matchup.
Stovall: With such a short turnaround, just like with the boys team, how are your girls handling it and how ready do you feel they are for this game?
Johnson: “I think everybody’s focused. I think with the way the last couple of weeks have gone, we’ve settled into a groove, hopefully. And with the intensity, seriousness and hype of the games, we’ve kind of settled in that. Although it’s a new and uncomfortable feeling each time, I hope we’ve become comfortable with being uncomfortable. So I think they’re good. I think they’re focused. I think getting to the Final Four makes it really a reality for them. Those first three games, you know, they’re thinking, ‘We’ve gotta win five of them,’ but now that we’re down to the last two, I think their eyes are really open, serious and focused and ready to go.”
Stovall: With the whole nerves and jitters thing, how much do you think that’ll play a part as your team plays a McEachern squad that’s won five of the last six state titles?
Johnson: “I wish I had the answer to that. That’s something I’m not sure how to gauge. It’s my first time. It’s their first time, so there’s a lot of unknowns going into this game. What I do know is my girls are fighters. They’re not going to quit. They’re going to leave it on the floor. How we adjust and how we start has been a mystery thus far. I just told them basketball’s a game of runs, so just keep fighting, and never in your head say, ‘We’re gonna lose,’ until you hear that horn sound and you see something different. So going in with that mindset is the focus. I didn’t talk too much about nerves. I just wanted them to go in there and focus on taking care of business. This is a business trip. I told them when we walk in the gym, take it all in. Great experience, but at the end of the day we’re here to win a basketball game. Don’t get too blinded by the lights. Enjoy it, but it’s time to play.”
Stovall: Looking at McEachern, what kind of specific challenges will they bring to your girls Saturday?
Johnson: “Oh, they have some great athletes. Some good guard play, definitely a 3-point threat. Their rebounders are athletic. They put pressure on you. And again, they’re experienced and knowledgeable of how this whole thing goes. That is an advantage for them. They have some speed on the floor, and I think as far as size goes in what we can do, I think we have a good scenario. A good matchup. It’s not going to be a one-sided game by any means. It’s going to be a nip-tuck thing just like we have been in. So we’re expecting another tough game, to be right in there and hopefully come away with a win.
Stovall: Is there any one particular matchup or aspect of the game where you think your girls may have an advantage?
Johnson: “Our advantage is that our team doesn’t revolve around one person and that we’re a defensive-minded team. So our philosophy is that on offense, any one person can be off, but our defense should always be on. So I think it’s to our advantage to be able to put pressure on and to play defense for the entire 32 minutes. Unwavering defense the entire 32 minutes. And that’s what we’re going to focus on. With them having the offensive threats that they do, being able to neutralize them. Making them work for that 32 minutes. Any point they get they’re gonna work for it. Our speed and endurance, I think we’re in better shape than they are. They may be a little faster. They may have some players who are better athletes, but I think we can outlast them.”