COVINGTON, Ga. — For all the tangible, explainable ways to describe how the Newton Lady Rams punched their ticket to their first GHSA state basketball tournament Final Four appearance since 1972, by defeating No. 5 Cherokee 70-68 Wednesday night, Newton coach Tiffani Johnson could only find one word to explain the game’s final play.
“God,” Johnson said.
After Newton senior Jurnee Smith stepped calmly to the free throw line to sink a pair of foul shots that gave the Lady Rams a four-point lead with 8.3 seconds remaining in the game. With it being a two possession game with that amount of time left, fans started cheering and the Lady Rams started to celebrate a bit — but almost too soon.
After Smith’s free throws, Newton was content to lay back on defense and let Lacie McCoy get to the basket uncontested for a layup. She made the basket with 0.9 seconds left, cutting the Newton lead to two points, but all Newton’s Diamond Swift had to do to secure the win was inbound the ball under the Cherokee basket and let that little sliver of time tick away.
That’s when it got hairy.
Swift had a hard time finding someone open to pass it to. With the Rams having no timeouts, she had to get the ball in anyway to prevent a five-second call which would’ve given Cherokee a catch-and-shoot opportunity to either win the game or send it into overtime.
Swift tossed the ball inbounds, but no one really caught the ball cleanly, as several Cherokee and Newton players jostled for it, and the buzzer sounded and the Rams escaped with reservations made for a semifinals matchup with McEachern Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Buford City Arena.
“That play was nothing but pure grace right there,” Johnson said. “That wasn’t what we were supposed to do. But when it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.”
Smith was on the court, somewhat near that final, almost disastrous play, but even she couldn’t tell you exactly what happened.
“I don’t even know, to tell you the truth,” Smith said. “I think we were just — we knew we had the game and we were ready to celebrate, and maybe already celebrating. That’s what it was.”
Despite the close call, Newton (27-3) gave a sold-out crowd at Newton High many reasons to celebrate the final home game of the 2017-18 season.
“It’s amazing,” Johnson said. “It still hasn’t set in. It’s a great feeling. An amazing feeling. I don’t have the words right now. I just know that the support in the building was great (Wednesday). Everywhere we went, it was ‘Coach, we support you. Go get ‘em.’ It felt good going into the game, and our crowd helped us. I didn’t want it to be that close at the end, but a win is a win.”
The significance of the moment certainly wasn’t lost on Smith who had 14 of her 18 points in the pivotal fourth quarter, including four clutch foul shots in the game’s final 39 seconds.
“It feels good to know that we made history,” she said. “It feels like a relief. I smiled on that last free throw because I knew we had it. I was thinking, ‘game over. we won.’”
Newton started fast as senior Lexii Chatman knocked down a 3-pointer for the game’s first points. But Cherokee’s Grace Mixson quickly answered with a trey of her own, tying things up at 3 apiece in a herky-jerky first three minutes of action.
“I think we had a little nerves at first,” Smith said. “I think we were just thinking too much. We were thinking ahead of the game, instead of just playing. Once we knew we had it, we just played Lady Rams basketball.”
Cherokee ended the first quarter with a 17-11 lead, and then stretched that lead to 10, at 27-17 when Courtney Cates sank a three at the 4:45 mark of the second quarter.
Interestingly, it was at that point Smith said she knew her team was about to turn the corner.
“When we went down by 10, that’s when I was like, ‘Okay. It’s time to go. It’s time to lock in,’” she said.
What followed was a 15-2 Newton run that helped the Rams close out the first half with a 37-33 lead.
Cherokee wouldn’t fold, though. The Lady Warriors came out as aggressive in the third quarter as it did at the beginning of the second, and would eventually build another lead — this time, a 53-48 advantage going into the game’s final frame.
That’s when Smith turned it on, scoring six straight Newton points in a mini-fourth quarter burst — the last two of those points coming in transition after 5-foot-5 Chatman blocked the shot of Cherokee’s 6-foot-3 post player, Kate Johnson.
It caused the Lady Rams coach to heap a load of praise on Smith.
“She really put the team on her back and showed the kind of player she is,” Coach Johnson said. “She deserves way more recognition than she’s getting, so hopefully somebody’s eyes were open today, and they saw a great kid making some great free throws and stepping up to make great plays for us today.”
Now, Smith and her teammates are looking forward to ice baths, two good days of practice and a chance to punch their ticket to the Class AAAAAAA state championship game with a win over McEachern (22-5) in Saturday’s Final Four matchup.
Meanwhile, Johnson says that as much as she’s appreciated the home court advantage through the first three rounds of the state tournament, the shift in scenery on Saturday may be just what the doctor ordered.
“I think the change in environment to Buford is going to help us get to another place,” Johnson said. “This was a great way for our seniors to end it in their last game in their gym. It’s a storybook. But it isn’t over yet.”