LILBURN, Ga. — Tiffani Johnson took a pause smack in the middle of recapping her team’s performance at the Parkview Tip-Off Classic Monday afternoon.
The Newton Lady Rams’ girls basketball coach thought she heard laughter coming from behind the closed door of the post game locker room. Wouldn’t have been an issue if the sixth-ranked Newton squad would’ve turned in a satisfactory performance against the Harrison Lady Hoyas.
They didn’t. The Rams dropped their first game of the season, 48-40. And if not for a mini-surge late in the game, the score could’ve been worse.
Midway through the third quarter, Newton found itself down by as many as 14 to a team that hadn’t won a game yet in the very young season. Not because Harrison was a better team, Johnson says. But because Newton played listless and disinterested basketball. And for a squad with six seniors and state championship aspirations, that was no laughing matter.
“I thought I heard laughing,” Johnson said. “I was hoping that wasn’t the case. I don’t know what would’ve come out of my mouth if they had been. After a game like that, there needs to be some soul searching going on.”
Newton appeared to be the faster and more physically gifted team Monday afternoon, but Harrison was a solidly coached ball club that didn’t make a ton of mistakes and didn’t allow adversity to get to them early on.
“When they punched us, we didn’t punch back,” Johnson said. “That should be who we are. When they got punched by us, they went on a run. When we didn’t get a call to go our way or something, we hung our heads and they didn’t. I think that was the only reason why we weren’t in that game. We were far more talented. The quicker team and better skilled team. But as the old saying goes, hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”
Newton, despite taking early leads — 15-12 at the end of the first quarter, and 23-19 at halftime, — did little to capitalize on their slight momentum edge in the third quarter.
Harrison bolted out to an 8-0 run to start the second half, swelling its lead to 32-23 before Newton finally knocked down a jumper at the 1:49 mark of the third. That bucket was the only field goal Newton made in the period, and two of just four points scored.
Newton did cut the lead back to two when Lexii Chatman drained a three-pointer just 20 seconds into the final frame, cutting Harrison’s lead to 32-30. But then the Hoyas went on a 12-2 run over the next four minutes to push their lead back to double digits.
The Harrison burst was sparked by buckets from seniors Audrey Jordan and Harper Vick. Eastyn Kin and Meredith Ward also chipped in with clutch baskets down the stretch to hold off Newton in a game that Johnson said was eerily, if not irritatingly, similar to last year’s season-ending loss to Duluth in the first round of the state tournament.
“I wish I knew what was wrong today so I could correct it,” Johnson said. “That game reminded me of the last one last year. We just came out flat. In the locker room we were flat, and we talked about where was our energy, but we just never did it. We never fought back today. I’m not so disappointed with the loss as much as the way we played.”
Chatman led Newton with 11 points, and Jurnee Smith added nine to the Rams’ total. But it wasn’t enough to offset Harrison’s ability to beat Newton to the punch on both sides of the court.
“Honestly, I’m disappointed in our leadership today,” she said. “Our six seniors and a bunch of juniors, it seemed like we’re going backwards after starting out so intense in these first two games. We revered back to what we used to be when I thought we were turning the corner.”
Newton’s strong start to the season included a 74-49 dismantling of Parkview and a 60-46 win against Heritage in Saturday’s NewRock Basketball Showcase.
The team will have a shot at redemption, though, when it competes in the Holiday Hoopsgiving Showcase at Holy Innocents on Friday at 9 a.m. And with several more high profile tournaments and an early clash on Dec. 1 with region foe, South Gwinnett, Johnson says that while Monday was disappointing, it’s far too early in the season to press the panic button.
“It’s definitely early, so (Monday’s loss) is not something we’re going to put too much emphasis on,” she said. “There’s still a lot of basketball to be played. We’ll go back to work at practice, and then we’ll see. I’ll be curious to see what we turn out on Friday. It’ll strictly be about our want-to and desire to improve the product we put on the floor.”