As far as basketball courts go, it doesn’t get any bigger than Philips Arena for Georgia natives. Newton’s Lady Rams and the Lady Panthers of Americus-Sumter converged on the Hawks’ home court in the early afternoon on Monday to watch the 28th (Americus-Sumter) and 29th (Newton) ranked teams in the state (according to Maxpreps.com) clash.
The matchup didn’t live up to the hype as the Lady Rams were stifled early on and couldn’t climb out of the hole they dug themselves into, losing 72-56 despite getting within six points in the fourth quarter after trailing by 19 at the end of the first period.
“The reason why we wanted to play them, Newton coach Tiffani Johnson said. "We wanted somebody to push us on the big floor and give us that playoff type feel and they definitely did that. We started off real slow in the first quarter. It took us a long time to get started, but overall playing a tough team like that I think it was good for us. We learned a lot about ourselves and it will definitely help us throughout the season.”
Two turnovers that led to Sumter layups had Newton down 4-0 to begin the game. The Lady Panthers defense was smothering. Newton trailed 9-0 with four minutes left in the opening quarter and the Lady Rams’ offense couldn't create space to get off an open shot.
Janelle Cook scored Newton’s first bucket off a rebound from a missed 3 by Alexcia Chatman to make it 17-2, Sumter. Newton was able to get some easy looks late in the first but the Lady Rams couldn't find the net and the Lady Panthers led 21-2 after the first quarter.
“I don’t know if it was just trying to adjust to the atmosphere and everything and we just started slow. Maybe the lights were too big for us at the beginning,” Johnson said. “Even being down so much in the first quarter, I think we did a good job of digging ourselves out of that hole. We cut it to within six, we just couldn’t get things turned over, but we fought through and ended strong. I just wish we could’ve started as strong as we ended.”
Cook added Newton’s second basket, a floater in the lane plus the foul to make it 21-4, Sumter after a scoring drought for both teams in the opening minutes of the second quarter. Cook nailed a three on the following possession and Newton was down 16.
FSU commit, A’tyanna Gaulden answered Cook’s three with her own three over Newton’s Takiya Cotton to get the lead back to 19.
The Lady Rams couldn't get a shot to fall. On one possession late in the second, Newton had three open shots and missed each one. Two more free throws from Cook made it a 16-point game and the Lady Panthers carried a 34-18 lead at the break.
The Lady Rams chipped away at the lead by the quarter as they were down by 15 at the end of the third after a layup from Jurnee Smith.
Imani Broadnax, who had been quiet most of the game, cut the lead to 12 on a jumper with 6:48 to play. A 3 from Chatman made it a nine-point game and she added two out of three from the charity stripe to cut the lead to seven.
After a Sumter basket, Gaulden nailed a layup and the free throw to give the Lady Panthers a 12-point lead. Sumter was able to stop the turnovers and extended their lead to 14 with 4:51 to play.
Up by 15 with 2:25 left Newton couldn't make what would've been a triumphant comeback and they fell 72-56 to the Lady Panthers.
Although the Lady Rams didn’t get the win, the game isn’t a region game and it ultimately served it’s purpose of providing Newton with experience of playing in a bigger arena against a really talented team.
“I think it’ll give us an experience to refer to. It won’t be a brand new experience to where we are uneasy because we don’t know what to expect, but this gives an experience to refer back to and some things to draw from. Understanding the difference in the depth perception and one of the biggest things for us was we couldn’t hear each other from the bench to the floor,” Johnson said.
“On the other end they kept saying, ‘I can’t hear. I can’t hear. I can’t hear.’ So understanding what that atmosphere’s gonna be like especially when the stands are absolutely full, how important communication is gonna be on the floor. It definitely gave us a clear reason why we emphasize communication in these next couple practices.”
Gaulden led all scorers with 27 points, 10 of those came in the first quarter and she added seven more in the fourth. Not to mention, Gaulden’s stellar passing that set up her teammates and caused huge problems for Newton.
Chatman and Cook led Newton with 14 points each.