COVINGTON, Ga. — Perhaps Takiya Cotton said it best, moments after the final buzzer sounded after Newton’s 45-40 win over Lambert in the girls’ Class AAAAAAA state tournament’s Sweet 16 round Thursday night.
“We beat the curse,” Cotton said. “That’s what they’re saying. We beat the curse.”
The curse that Cotton is referring to is Newton’s previous inability to advance past the Sweet 16 in the 13 years coach Tiffani Johnson has been at the helm of the program. But on Thursday it was sound defense and a big scoring night from Lexii Chatman and her game-high 23 points that thrust the Newton girls into the Elite Eight for the first time in Johnson's tenure, and perhaps the first time since the 1970s.
And Johnson, voice quivering, didn’t mind taking time to express just how major of an accomplishment that is for her team.
“It feels good,” Johnson said. “It’s real big. I’m still trying to let it sink in. My voice is gone. It just feels great. The girls have earned their seat at the table in that sense. We’re senior heavy. We made a lot of mistakes, but we were able to pull through. I keep saying, those close games, last year I don’t know if we pull them out, but we did tonight by being able to get through other games like that.”
It was Cotton, Newton’s diminutive reserve point guard who, despite not exactly stuffing the stat sheet — in fact, she didn’t score at all in Thursday night’s game — made one of the game’s biggest plays.
With less than 20 seconds left in the game, and Lambert with an opportunity to tie or take the lead, Cotton stepped in front of a Lady Longhorns pass and advanced the ball forward to Chatman who would make one of two free throws, making it a two-possession ballgame for Lambert.
This came after the Lady Rams carried a 38-22 lead into the fourth quarter, looking as if they’d turn what was a close game throughout into a route. But Lambert thwarted those plans by getting hot from behind the arc at the start of the fourth quarter, connecting on as many 3-point baskets (three) as it had total field goals in the entire third period.
Reagan Pasonski buried back-to-back treys within 35 seconds of each other, and then Summer Edwards sank one at the top of the key at the 6:28 mark chop Newton’s lead to seven at 38-31.
It took the Rams almost three minutes before Jurnee Smith would score the team’s first basket of the final stanza, but Lambert kept coming.
With Newton still up by six, Sidney Chason would get fouled, but missed the front end of a one-in-one. However, Katie Schwind was there for the rebound and put-back. But then Edwards stole the ensuing inbounds pass and made a layup, to make the score 39-37 Newton.
On Newton’s next possession, Smith would score on a lay-in to make it 41-37, but Lambert chopped it back down to two with Jaleah Green’s pretty step-back jumper at the 2:30 mark.
It was clear from the onset that Lambert wanted to slow the game down and take Newton out of its transition game comfort zone. And for much of the first half it worked, Lambert, despite giving up six quick points in the first quarter, settled in and stymied the Rams offensively while going into the second quarter down 9-6.
Both teams played fairly evenly in the second quarter as Newton took an 18-16 lead into halftime, before outscoring Lambert 20-6 in the pivotal third. And as it became clearer that her team was in for a defensive grudge match, Cotton actually locked in even more — particularly on her assignment to relentlessly face guard Lambert’s Edwards.
“She did a great job of disrupting (Edwards),” Johnson said. “We talked about that all week. I told Takiya that I want number 14 to see you in her sleep tonight. She did a great job of keeping focused.”
Cotton attributes that to the emergence of another side of her that typically is reserved for pressure moments in tight basketball games.
“I have this alter ego called, Scrappy,” Cotton said. “The little dog from the Scooby Doo cartoon. That’s the name coach Johnson gave me. So I had to bring out Scrappy tonight. We know (Edwards) is the player who runs the show for them. That’s the player that calls their plays. So to get her out of the game, it gets them out of the game.”
And when it got testy, ‘Scrappy’ rose up to the challenge even more.
“It’s the energy,” Cotton said. “I feed off energy. So as much energy is coming at me, I’ll bring even more to it. It’s my defense. I’m the smallest one, but I love to go.”
In addition to Chatman’s 23, Jurnee Smith chipped in with nine points as Newton will move on to host No. 5 Cherokee either next Tuesday or Wednesday, most likely at 6 p.m.
Cherokee, another No. 1 seed, defeated Colquitt County 64-39 Thursday night in its Sweet 16 matchup. But Newton drew the home court advantage by winning a coin toss to determine which top seed hosts the next round.
And although Johnson and her team will, no doubt, bask in the glory of their Elite Eight milestone for a couple of days, she knows they’ll have to come back to earth quickly to continue their march toward a state championship.
“I think with this being such a nip-and-tuck game, it’s a bit of a wake up call,” she said. “We’re understanding that we have three more games if we’re going to pursue this ring, and the next three are going to be just that tough, and the mistakes we made today are gonna eat us alive if we continue to make those.”
During the post game interviews, Cotton didn’t know who she and her teammates would face next. But she said that regardless of who it is, the formula for advancing further will be the same.
“We’ve got to remain focused as a team at practice,” she said. “And we have to run the floor and play that good defense and keep doing what we’re good at. If we just play our game, it’ll help us beat whoever’s next.”