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Newton Lady Rams clinch first region crown in five years behind solid performance from 'unusual' stars
Newton Champs
The Newton Lady Rams celebrate en route to lay hands on their Region 8-AAAAAAA trophy after Saturday night's 60-44 win over South Gwinnett in the region tournament championship game. - photo by Anthony Banks

COVINGTON, Ga. — Lexii Chatman isn’t one to show a ton of emotion on the basketball court. But Saturday night in the final seconds of Newton’s  60-44 region championship triumph over South Gwinnett, Chatman couldn’t help herself. 

As it became evident that the No. 6 Lady Rams were going to grab its first region crown since the 2013-14 season, Newton players were content to swing the ball around the perimeter to each other as a way to run out the clock and secure the win. 

When the ball came to Chatman, she grabbed it, slapped it hard with her right hand then allowed a rare, wide grin to spread across her face. 

That smile was a microcosm of varying emotions and thoughts running through her head — thoughts that stretched back to her freshman year, and the previous three misses at a region championship she had to endure. But in those final moments, the senior guard’s smile summarized everything in a three-word thought.  

“We did it,” Chatman said when asked what was going through her mind at the moment of that smile. “We did it as a team. Nobody lacked. When it was bad times, the bench kept us up on the court and everybody played their role. And…we just did it.” 

Chatman, with her 11 points, was one of four Lady Rams in double figures in Saturday night’s Region 8-AAAAAAA championship game. But the region player of the year was in no mood to make the moment about herself — except to articulate how desperately she desired this moment. 

“I wanted it real bad,” she said. “We came out real hard. You know, we had a hard loss last year, so we had to do it. We had to get it in our home gym. This was my last chance at a region championship with Newton. I’ve been here four years, and every year we went but never got it. So to do it in my senior year, it felt good.” 

And to capture the title by beating South Gwinnett felt doubly good. 

The last time the Lady Rams tangled with the Lady Comets, Newton blew a double-digit lead and lost on its home floor, 66-61. After that game, Newton coach Tiffani Johnson non-cryptically predicted a third meeting between the region rivals. 

“We’ll see them again,” she said in postgame comments following that loss. 

Newton Lady Rams head coach Tiffani Johnson says she's confident about her team's chances at dethroning a four-time state champion in McEachern. - photo by Anthony Banks

Turns out Johnson was right, and she was pleased with how ready her squad was to handle the get-back game. 

“I could tell when they came in (Saturday night) that they were locked in,” Johnson said. “The shoot-around was quiet. Headphones in. Nobody played around. Last time, the focus wasn’t there. This time we came in and took care of business.” 

Though not without some early-game drama, however. South Gwinnett started Saturday’s game much like it ended that January 25 win, and the Rams found themselves down 10-3 early in the first quarter. 

That’s when junior Diamond Swift and senior Jurnee Smith sparked a 10-3 run that knotted the game at 13. Then, Chatman gave Newton its first lead at 15-13 when she drove the length of the floor and sank a twisting layup with 45.3 seconds left in the quarter. 

Newton would never surrender that lead, and actually built it to a 30-20 advantage at halftime and extended it to a 47-31 lead at the end of the third. 

Jurnee Smith finished with a team-high 14 points, but it was Jada Franklin’s 12 and Rachel Hilliard’s 11 points that Johnson praised most vehemently. 

“We had a couple of unusual suspects on the team tonight,” she said. “Being who we are, people’s eyes are on Jurnee and Lex and Erianna (Card) and Diamond. But a production doesn’t happen with just the super stars. There are a lot of people who make it look good. Rachel, Je-Naya (Smith), Takiya (Cotton) and Jada don’t get much shine, but they’re the ones who help push us through.” 

Hilliard’s ability to bang with South Gwinnett’s post player Xion Lopez was big, as Lopez’s presence — key in South Gwinnett’s January win — was neutralized even as Hilliard shined, at one point scoring seven straight points for Newton in the third quarter. 

Rachel Hilliard
Junior Rachel Hilliard's down-low presence was huge for Newton in the Lady Rams' region championship win over South Gwinnett. - photo by Anthony Banks

“It felt good to play that way in this game,” Hilliard said. “My goal is always to get 10 points at least. But to get 11 and the and-one and a few rebounds was pretty cool. I’ve been trying to get that all year, and so to get that in a region championship game, that was nice.” 

Hilliard didn’t downplay the sweetness of doing it against South Gwinnett, either. 

“Oh yeah,” she said. “It was good because that whole winter (weather) break we had when we were supposed to play them in that second game shifted us. We wanted to get at them, but we came back kind of off. They won on our home court, but we said next time we see them we’re gonna get them. So this time, we came and got it back. Got the ‘W’ and the region championship. So we’re happy. I’m happy.” 

Johnson said she’d allow her team to bask in that feeling for the next 36 hours or so before prepping to avoid a repeat of last year’s premature ouster in the state tournament. Newton laid an egg against an upstart Duluth team at home in the tournament’s first round last season. 

And this Saturday with an eager Central Gwinnett (12-14, 7-6 in Region 7-AAAAAAA) squad coming to Newton High to open the state tournament, Johnson said she wants to make sure that the past stays in the past. 

“This washes a lot of last year away,” Johnson said. “It’s almost like that forgive and forget thing. You forgive yourself for how you performed (last season), but you never forget. In fact, we use it as fuel. I So we’ll let them enjoy it and rest up Sunday, and Monday it’s back to business. 

And for Newton, the business at hand is bigger than just making a respectable tournament run.

“I want them to sit in this championship moment for a little while,” she said. “I need them to crave that feeling of what it should feel like after a game. Let them taste it and hopefully create the hunger for that state championship.”