COVINGTON, Ga. — No offense to the Archer Tigers, the most recent opponent of the Class AAAAAAA No. 4 Newton Lady Rams, but they weren’t Newton’s toughest opponent last Friday during the team’s last outing.
In Newton’s 69-48 blowout of the defending Region 8-AAAAAAA champs — albeit a much different looking bunch than last year’s Archer squad — coach Tiffani Johnson was proud of the way her team overcame its biggest challenge — the flu.
It’s been spreading around Newton like wildfire, as several players from both the girls and boys squads either missed time or were severely hampered by it in their most recent games. But if you watched the way the Lady Rams made quick work of Archer Friday, you might not have known anything was amiss.
“With everybody going down, and even just having a rough day at school that day, for them to come out tough and get through that, I think it showed their maturity,” Johnson said. “I’m not sure if we would’ve made it through a game like this last year.”
So far the Lady Rams (15-2, 5-0) have gotten through all but two of their 17 games and all of their region games unscathed. And they’re not just barely getting by, either. Since its last loss, a 54-52 setback to Shades Valley (Alabama) in the Ball & Prep Tournament in Birmingham last month, Newton’s ripped off four straight, with an average margin of victory of 27.2 points per game.
And though the usual suspects Lexii Chatman and Jurnee Smith have been pacing the team, Johnson says its other players such as Diamond Smith, Takiya Cotton and Rachel Hilliard who’ve been coming up particularly big.
Against Archer, Chatman drilled four first-half 3-pointers to help start the route. Smith had a game-high 21 points, thanks to her relentless slashing and penetration to the paint for easy buckets.
But Cotton provided energy — as well as a few oohs and ahhs from the crowd. Like on one particular play, Cotton followed up a sweet cross-over dribble while stopping on a dime and making an Archer defender fall, with a pinpoint dish to Hilliard on the lower block who finished with a lay-in.
Swift picked up some scoring slack when Chatman was on the bench, and, as Johnson says, the entire team is so honed in that they can make bad days look good.
"You have to lean on the others," Johnson said. "Sometimes they don't get the shine, but the ones like Jurnee, Diamond. They sucked it up. Takiya gave us a great game. Rachel's our only big and she's in there banging on the block. They're the ones that help you in those kinds of games to come up with the win."
Johnson said its a testament to the holistic maturation of her team -- being able to get up for, and execute well in, the games that aren't necessarily marquee matchups.
“It’s not about those easy games and blowouts,” Johnson said. “It’s about mentally making it through those games where, behind the scenes, things may not be so well. Yet you still come out on stage and perform and make it look like it was supposed to happen. I don’t know if people knew what was going on with us by simply watching us play, and that’s a good sign.”
The sharpness in Newton’s play and attention to excellence is particularly timely, given its next opponent.
Weather permitting, the Lady Rams will square up with seventh-ranked South Gwinnett (16-1, 4-1) in a 6 p.m. tip off at Newton’s gym Wednesday. It’ll be a matchup of two teams looking to lay claim to the region’s top spot. And if the first game between the two schools was any indication, this next clash may be one of the more intense games Newton will play all season.
The Rams defeated the Lady Comets 61-58 back on Dec. 1 in a game that went back and forth to the final buzzer. Johnson expects a similar dog fight, but is perhaps more confident in her team’s mindset than she’s ever been, coming into it.
“I think we’re focused,” Johnson said. “I think we’re taking every game one at a time and not overlooking anyone. We’re just more focused on us making sure everybody gets well and is suited up so that we’ll have 100 percent of our weapons we need to fight. But we don’t need any extra or added motivation. We’re in a good place.
“We’re a different team than the last time we played South Gwinnett and I’m sure they feel the same way. I think we’re deeper with more game experience than we were. It should be a good one.”