Days prior, the Flowery Branch High girls basketball team was out west, gazing at one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World that is the Grand Canyon.
A breathtaking detour at the end a holiday trip to Phoenix, Ariz., where the Lady Falcons played amongst many of the top programs in the country during the Nike Tournament of Champions on Dec. 19-22.
Flowery Branch went 2-2 during what is considered the most prestigious basketball tournament — boys and girls — in the nation, capping off the three-day stint with a 45-35 win over West Campus (Calif.) on Saturday. Both the Lady Falcons’ victories came after dropping the first two contests, the first via buzzer beater against two-time defending Class AA champion Upperman (Tenn.) on opening day. Up to 96 teams from across the U.S. participated, including the majority of the preseason top 25.
The experience, girls coach Courtney Newton-Gonzalez said, was a way to expose her girls to competition they don’t typically see on a regular basis, and a means to prepare them for the state playoffs around the bend.
Also helps that it backs into the annual northeast Georgia basketball extravaganza that is Lanierland.
And this year, three-time defending Hall County champion Flowery Branch carries the giant target on its back for the 59th-installment of Lanierland opening Thursday, Dec. 27, in Gainesville. The Lady Falcons (9-3) look to become the first squad to win four-consecutive titles since West Hall’s girls (1997-2000).
Of course, it won’t be a walk in the park. Newton-Gonzalez would know as someone to win the prestigious county championship as both a player and coach.
“When you’ve won it three years in a row, of course you’re the team to beat,” said Newton-Gonzalez, in her fourth season as the Lady Falcons coach. “And people, they want to win. That’s what makes Lanierland so special, is that anybody can win it on any given year. Just because we’ve won it the last couple of years, doesn’t mean it’s not gonna be a battle. We know that it is.”
Newton-Gonzalez also is without the talents of 2018 graduates Taniyah Worth and Lexie Sengkhammee, vital pieces to the program’s first-ever three-peat at Lanierland and the Lady Falcons reaching the state championship game last season. Worth, a former three-time Lanierland MVP, now plays for Alabama. Sengkhammee meanwhile, is part of the Emmanuel College program. Newton-Gonzalez still returns three seniors out of last season’s starting five which carry on the winning tradition.
Mirroring Lanierland’s three-day grind is another element gained from the Tournament of Champions out west — especially for Flowery Branch’s two starting sophomores. Second-year post player Ashlee Locke benefited greatly, posting her monster triple double that included 11 blocks in a win over Chaparral (Colorado) last Friday.
“We still have a lot of youth in there... But the seniors that have been on our team have experienced a lot of success — with Lanierland and a lot of state runs we’ve made,” the Lady Falcons coach added. “But they know that each year is different, and they know they’ve got to continue to grow, continue to work hard to accomplish what this team wants to accomplish.”
Top-seeded Flowery Branch this year will be up against an expanded field, beginning against newcomer Cherokee Bluff coached by former Lady Falcons assistant Lindsay Justice in the opening round Thursday night. Lanier Christian Academy is the other new addition to the bracket and will take the court in the ninth-place game.
Besides the larger pool of play, Alan Griffin of Gainesville, Justice and Shawana Harrison (West Hall) are first-year head coaches set to make their Lanierland debuts in the main draw.
It was nine years ago when Griffin first heard whispers of Georgia’s longest-standing invitational basketball tournament while with his former high school team in Columbus. Griffin, who attended a couple of games in recent years as a spectator, is eager to experience the Lanierland stage for the first time as a coach.
“It’s incredibly exciting to be a part of the history of the tournament, and part of such an outstanding high school basketball atmosphere,” Griffin said. “... (Lanierland) is fun to be a part of. But from a program standpoint, it’s such an important time to see how your kids will face some of the top talent and top teams, and how they’ll do in a tournament format … and how they’ll compete in those pressures on them. It’s a really important time for a basketball team to start to form who they might become.”
Griffin’s Lady Red Elephants (6-4) enter the tournament as an intriguing No. 7 seed, winning six of their last eight games after starting the season 0-2. They will face two-seed East Hall at 3:30 p.m. today in the first round. Also, Gainesville senior guard Tija Blackwell is just nine points shy of 1,000 points for her career.
Meanwhile, last year’s runner-up East Hall (6-8) begins the quest for its 18th Lanierland title overall, but first since 2011.
Harrison is another to experience Lanierland as a star player for Gainesville in the early 2000s. Harrison, a former assistant coach for the Lady Red Elephants, now leads a West Hall program which holds the No. 4 seed.