ATLANTA, Ga. — Most times coaches and players will tell you that nobody on a team thinks they’re going to lose a game until the final buzzer sounds. And most times you can’t help but to believe them.
Such was the case with this year’s Newton Lady Rams basketball team — the Class AAAAAAA state runners-up Lady Rams basketball team. They had an uncanny way of keeping you believing no matter the odds.
There was the nip-and-tuck game against Lambert when the Lady Longhorns stormed back from a big deficit and threatened to steal the game away from Newton in the fourth quarter.
There was the Elite Eight matchup with Cherokee where Newton found itself down 10 in the first half before mounting a comeback that sent the Warriors packing.
And, of course, the McEachern game that will live on in Newton basketball lore for quite some time. The Lady Rams traded in an 18-point third quarter deficit for an eight point semifinals win.
After the McEachern game, Newton guard Lexii Chatman said that the mood and spirit in the halftime locker room was unanimously indomitable.
“We just kept saying we’re not gonna lose,” Chatman said at the time. “I don’t care if we’re down by 15, 25, 30. We’re not gonna lose.”
And they didn’t.
So against Westlake, it stood to reason that Newton, nor its fans, should be afraid of a little adversity. The Rams showed they could compete throughout. They had a lead at halftime. They were within four points late in the fourth quarter. And suddenly, all those comebacks and rallies came flashing into your mind.
If they did it against Cherokee, Lambert, McEachern, then they can do it against Westlake.
And then Chatman fouled out of the game.
As she lingered on the court as most players do when they realize their game is over, you could almost feel the wind coming out of Newton’s sails. If Jurnee Smith was Newton’s stabilizer, Chatman was their energizer. She ignited things, particularly on offense.
Coach Tiffani Johnson describes Chatman as the “juice” that gets them going. By the time Chatman had fouled out of the game, I had descended from my press box perch to join the Newton fans in McCamish Pavilion’s general admission seats, and for the first time this season, I felt like Newton’s juice was all squeezed out.
Eventually Chatman sauntered over to the bench and took her seat, buried her head in her hands and, no doubt, began to come to terms with the fact that — barring a miracle — Newton’s championship hopes were pretty much done, and so was her high school hoops career.
Today I played my last high school game sad to say, but now it’s time to move on & start my next basketball chapter of my life. Thanks to everybody that didn’t just believe in me but my team also. I’m grateful to have such wonderful coaches & teammates.— Lex (@Lex_Chatman3) March 11, 2018
I wonder if, at that point, Johnson began to shift her thinking from championship mentality to a moral victory mindset. I’ve been around this stuff long enough to know that coaches hate moral victories. But when Johnson addressed media after Saturday’s game, she grudgingly resigned to the fact that maybe…just maybe…Newton’s journey to Georgia Tech wasn’t about getting rings after all.
Perhaps, something greater was at work.
“Maybe we got here just to show the (Newton County/Covington) community what happens when we show a little love to everybody,” Johnson said. “What we can do for these kids when we show the amount of love that we have for them. I think we need to take that and use that social media platform and take that love even further to these kids. Use that platform that this game developed and ask, ‘What can we do for these kids? What can we do for these schools? What’s the next thing we can rally around?’
“The way everybody came out for us because of basketball, that’s the way Newton County should always be.”
I can honestly say that in almost a decade of covering sports in Georgia, the amount of love and support shown to the Newton girls was unlike anything I’d ever witnessed. I’ve never seen a community rally tighter and collectively root harder for a high school sports team than what I saw Newton County and Covington do for the Lady Rams.
“It was absolutely amazing,” Johnson said. “As a coach and competitor, to have your rival teams in the county push that rivalry to the side to support fellow Newton County students, it’s absolutely amazing.”
In the postgame locker room Saturday there were weepy eyes and tear-stained faces — including the coaches. Nobody likes to get that far and lose. When you watch the Lady Rams play, they’re a stoic bunch. They look unflappable — sometimes almost unengaged. But spend a little time talking to them off stage, and you quickly understand their love for the game of basketball, for their coaches and for each other.
That came pouring out behind the scenes after Saturday’s loss in the form of sobs. But so did perspective from their coach. Johnson said she tried to use the moment to teach her kids — and remind herself — that sometimes sports reflects life, for better or worse.
Sports can remind you that you can bust your butt, put in all the work, show the greatest effort, do everything the coaches say, and still come up on the losing end. In that way, the game is a caricature of the classroom, the boardroom or even family and personal life. But regardless of which it is, life lessons abound.
“That’s what I love about sports,” she said. “It can kind of neutralize everything, and it brings the love out of everybody. I’m anxious to see if a basketball team, a basketball game can make the county come together like that for more things. Hopefully there’s a bigger lesson in that as well.”
It’s almost a shame to have to close the book and tie a nice, neat bow onto this season. I’m quite sure if Newton came away with a championship, we would instantly feel that we would have enough good vibes, good feelings and fodder to talk basketball all the way until football season comes calling again. Probably even longer.
But maybe this is the way it was supposed to end. Maybe it’s for the greater good. Maybe five,10, 20 years down the road, Newton County will still be talking about these Lady Rams. But it won’t be all about basketball. It’ll be about something much more important to those of us who live, work and play in this community.
It’ll be about the power of doing life together as a community with many similarities instead of being adversaries dividing ourselves because of a small number of differences.
It’ll be about the power of shared love and support. It’ll be about perseverance, even when you’re down. It’ll be about what happens when we make the choice to stick together instead of push apart.
It’ll be about life, and how a group of soft-spoken teenaged girls, a Newton alumnae coach and a basketball showed us how good it feels to intentionally live with and love on each other.
When that happens, we’ll all owe the Newton girls basketball team a big, fat, ‘Thank you.’ So let me start it off.
Thank you, Lady Rams. You won on Saturday in more ways than you know. And so did we.
Gabriel Stovall is the sports editor of The Covington News. He can be reached for story tips and ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GabrielStovall1.