COVINGTON, Ga. — COVINGTON, Ga. — This time last year, during the final few moments of the Newton Lady Rams’ first round state tournament game against Duluth, the somber mood could tell you all you needed to know about the Rams’ postseason fate.
Heads were down and there was a state of disbelief in how a team so close to a region championship a week earlier could be taking an early bow-out to a Duluth team that, on paper, it was better than.
Fast forward to this Saturday night as Newton put the finishing touches on a 77-47 win over Central Gwinnett in the first round of this year’s Class AAAAAAA state tournament, and you’ll see a different scene.
Jurnee Smith and Lexii Chatman led with 16 points, while Diamond Swift kicked in 14 in the route, and because it was such a blowout, instead of Rams starters hanging their heads, they were sitting on the bench in a shortened fourth quarter, cheering on reserves that have rarely seen the floor this season.
And for coach Tiffani Johnson, it was the kind of scene she envisioned for this senior-laden team against an overmatched opponent.
“It was great to have that happen,” Johnson said. “I’ve been saying that we’re so much further mentally than we were last year. We’re tougher, we’re more confident physically with our basketball skills, and just the fact that the girls are confident in themselves, and they honestly believe they can make it happen.”
The “it” Johnson speaks of is a state championship. And Saturday’s win placed the Lady Rams into the Sweet 16 round of the Class AAAAAAA state tournament. It’s the third time during coach Tiffani Johnson’s 13-year tenure that Newton has made it to the second round, but none of her teams have made it past that point.
Johnson believes she has a team this year that can change that.
“The thing that fuels us is the legit chance we feel we have to win a state championship,” she said. “Our seniors are in pursuit. I won’t say we want it, because just wanting it doesn’t mean anything. But every game gets us closer to that. I think they’re hungry enough and focused enough to make the adjustments this year.”
Things started off a little sluggish for the Rams against Central Gwinnett, however, as the Lady Black Knights rushed out to an 8-3 lead early in the first quarter behind a pair of 3-pointers from Amaya Adams and Diarra Smith.
Newton quickly responded with a 7-0 run, fueled by five points from Jada Franklin. The last bucket from Franklin in the run gave Newton a 10-8 lead at the 5:03 mark of the first quarter. It would be a lead the Rams would never relinquish.
Newton’s defense limited the Black Knights to just three buckets in the second quarter, en route to the Rams taking a 47-28 lead. With Newton up 68-35 at the end of the third quarter, the final frame was chopped from the usual eight-minute quarter to six minutes, and Johnson was then able to empty her bench.
Newton moves on to host a second round game either Wednesday or Thursday against Lambert. The Lady Longhorns (18-9, 9-2 in Region 5-AAAAAAA) won their first round matchup with Mill Creek, 60-50. Lambert has won 12 of its last 15 games, dating back to January 5.
And Johnson is hoping that her bunch can avoid the slow starts its incurred over the last several games.
“I was confident we’d get past that, only because we’ve had the same issue the last couple of games,” she said. “I don’t know what its is about those first three r four minutes. But we’ve talked about pushing through the run. Basketball is a game of runs, so I knew we’d overcome some of that, but I just wish it wouldn’t happen.”
Rams remain hot
Newton’s now on a five-game winning streak since tripping up against South Gwinnett in the regular season. Since November 20, Newton is 23-2, while winning all but five of those games by no less than 16 points.
Emerging stars abound
Lexii Chatman, Jurnee Smith and Erianna Card are the names that everyone knows. But Newton’s been getting superb play from a plethora of lesser talked about contributors. Among those is Rachel Hilliard who has provided Newton with a solid post presence, both offensively and defensively. Je-Naya Franklin as been given Newton shot in the arm several times offensively by knocking down clutch treys, and Jada Franklin has been a force defensively, in transition and grabbing loose balls.
Slightly on the mend
Lexii Chatman was noticeably a little hobbled during Saturday’s game, but Johnson says it’s nothing serious. Johnson said Chatman took a knee to the thigh during a recent practice, and just has a sore muscle. “It’s just one of those things where Lexii only knows how to go one speed, and we have to give her a chance to come out and recharge,” Johnson said. “She’ll be fine.”