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Area girls basketball teams gear up for more excitement in 58th Lanierland
Top-seeded Flowery Branch poised for another championship run
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Flowery Branch guard Taniyah Worth (22) dribbles downcourt during the game between Flowery Branch and Buford in Gainesville, on Friday, Dec. 15, 2017. Buford defeated Flowery Branch 58-48. - photo by David Barnes

The 2017 Lanierland girls bracket

The conversation between Courtney Newton-Gonzalez and her Flowery Branch High girls basketball team is usually quite simple: Stay focused, and keep it one game at a time.

Of course, it’s easier said than done once Lanierland enters the picture. For the reigning Hall County champion Lady Falcons, they certainly have a lot to look forward to these next three days.

The 58th installment of Georgia’s longest-running basketball tournament begins today at Lakeview Academy before transitioning to the Lady Falcons’ home court of Flowery Branch High for the semifinal and championship rounds in the final two days. 

The third-place game Saturday will be a 3 p.m. tipoff, followed by the championship game at 6 p.m. in Flowery Branch.

Day 1 action inside the Walters Athletic Center in Gainesville opens with five-seed North Hall against fourth-seeded host Lakeview Academy at 9 a.m., followed by three-seed Gainesville taking on East Hall (No. 6 seed) at noon. The tournament’s top-two seeds will conclude early-round action, beginning with last year’s runner-up and No. 2 seed West Hall playing region foe Chestatee (seventh seed) at 3 p.m. The top-seeded Lady Falcons face eight-seed Johnson in the girls nightcap at 6 p.m.

Newton-Gonzalez said her players are rested and eager for a return to action after a brief stint in Orlando, Florida, for the KSA Holiday Tournament.

The Lady Falcons, Score Atlanta’s No. 2-ranked squad in Class 5A, are arguably the favorites and could pull off the tournament’s first girls three-peat since West Hall (1997-2000). Flowery Branch could also be on a collision course toward a rematch of last year’s championship with the Lady Spartans.

“We’ve got a really good group of seniors who have been involved in those championships last two years and are excited for another opportunity,” said Newton-Gonzalez, who has coached the Lady Falcons for the last three seasons.

All but two make up the 2016 Lanierland roster of Flowery Branch, including two-time tournament MVP Taniyah Worth (an Alabama signee), senior guard Lexie Sengkhammee, Ashley Woodroffe and even underrated talent Caroline Wysocki. Newton-Gonzalez especially voiced her excitement for her younger players getting to log big minutes on this type of stage.

But Newton-Gonzalez isn’t about to forget the surrounding competition.

“(Lanierland) is mainly special because anybody can win it any given year,” she said. “The competition and just the atmosphere brings so much more than just any other game. ... We won it the last two years, but we know there are some good teams in the tournament. We just gotta stay focused and play our style of basketball.”

Their eyes will be on senior Anna McKendree, who still steers the ship for West Hall entering Lanierland follower her record-breaking junior season. The 5-foot-8 guard shot her way to eclipsing the school’s all-time scoring mark in last year’s opening round, then led the Spartans to their first finals appearance since 2000. 

She nearly single-handedly upstaged Flowery Branch in the second half in the championship, accounting for 15-straight points in the third quarter as part of a 30-point showing in a 59-50 loss.

Teams still have to marvel at East Hall’s 17 Lanierland titles as the winningest program in the girls bracket, though the Lady Vikings have not won since 2011. This year’s No. 6 seed showcases standout talent in Georgia State pledge Carly Winters, the senior 3-point sharpshooter for the Lady Vikings. 

Winters has long had a knack for clutch shots on this particular stage. As a sophomore, she drained the game-winning 3 at the buzzer against Gainesville in the semifinals. Thirteen days prior, Winters also knocked down three-straight from beyond the arc in overtime to lead the Lady Vikings to a narrow victory over Banks County.

Tournament host Lakeview Academy, on the other hand, now enters Lanierland without the talents of its “Big Three” (Christen Copeland, Hanna Grogan and Ryann Moody), which paced the Lady Lions to a showdown with Gainesville in the third-place game last year. Third-seed Gainesville is another team showcasing some new faces on the floor given the departure of four-year staple Taylor Hawks, who now plays at Jacksonville State. Hawks scored 28 points to lead the Red Elephants past Lakeview in the consolation championship and earn All-tournament honors last year.

Lakeview Academy coach John Carrick indicated at the start of the season that this will be a rebuild year for the program. Chestatee and North Hall also hope to make a push in the bracket.

That still doesn’t take away from Newton-Gonzalez’s plan to keep her reigning Lanierland champs in the right frame of mind this week.

“Everybody has won some good games, and that’s what makes (Lanierland special),” she said. “You just gotta take it one game at a time and see what unfolds over the next three days.”

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