Despite having a No. 2 seed, a Region 8-AAAAAAA tournament runner-up finish and an impressive regular season record, the Newton Lady Rams went one-and-done in the GHSA Class AAAAAAA basketball tournament after losing to No. 3 seed Duluth 66-54 Friday night.
It was a head scratching performance for Lady Rams coach Tiffani Johnson who struggled to come up with ways to describe one of the team’s most lackluster performances of the season, despite the stakes.
“We weren’t focused. We didn’t come ready to play,” Johnson said. “We didn’t want it. We didn’t execute. Every play that was called, defense that was called they didn’t do it. We were distracted with everything going on today. That was more important than the game today. It was more important than their season.”
The Lady Rams never could find much rhythm on offense, and had even more trouble trying to keep the slightly taller Duluth Lady Wolfpack off of the glass. That fact was puzzling, given the way Newton battled on the boards against a much taller Archer team in last Saturday’s region championship game.
“We did everything better against Archer because those girls wanted that game against Archer,” Johnson said.
From the beginning of this game, however, the want-to seemed to be missing.
Five Newton turnovers in the first quarter helped it fall behind 15-7 at the end of the first period.
Tight defense and better ball control helped Newton make up the deficit, along with junior guard Lexi Chatman getting warm from the outside. Chatman buried a three pointer from the elbow at the 6:32 mark of the second quarter right after Mosley scored a two point bucket to chop Duluth’s lead to 15-12.
It was freshman Je-Naya Smith who gave Newton its first lead of the game when she scored on a layup to make it 18-17, Rams with 4:22 left in the first half. Newton would take a 24-23 lead into the locker room, and then came out of the gates swinging in the third quarter when Asia Hyman capped a mini run with a trey that gave Newton a 35-30 lead with 2:15 left in the third.
But that field goal would be the last Newton bucket until the 3:47 mark in the fourth quarter. Duluth went on a 10-0 run engineered by senior Endia Banks to close the third quarter. Banks finished with 18 points on the night, and the Rams were never able to get closer than five points for the rest of the game.
“We didn’t do anything to win the game,” Johnson said. “Even when we went on a run, it still didn’t cause any positive emotion in the game. Today it was Duluth wanting in it. They earned it. Congratulations to them. But we didn’t do anything to win it.”
It left Johnson wondering if her team left its energy at the pep rally the school held for both the girls and boys teams.
“Honestly, I have no clue where their heads were,” she said. “I wish I knew where they were so I’d at least know where to reach to pull them out. We got excited at the big pep rally today, and then it just fizzed out when we got ready to play. Where the pep rally was supposed to be the hype and the energy for the game, it did nothing for us.
“The players who were down wouldn’t allow other teammates to pick them up. As bad as we played, it was still a winnable game. We just couldn’t do anything to turn it over in our favor.”
Lexi Chatman led the Rams with 17 points. Janelle Cook — one of two seniors playing their last game as a Ram — chipped in with 10 points and was the only other Newton player in double figures.
The loss ended Newton’s season at 20-7, and while it doesn’t thwart Johnson’s belief in her team and program’s ability to bounce back next season, she admits that the sting on this premature postseason exit will linger.
“The program’s not over,” she said. “But I have a very, very bad taste in my mouth right now. I hope there’s a bad taste in their mouth right now that will get us ignited to come offseason to be ready to work and earn your place. It’s heartbreaking to end the season doing so well, with the amount of talent we had, and to just lay down like we did tonight. That one is gonna hurt for a while.”