MACON — The Flowery Branch High girls basketball team once again provided concrete evidence why it is not to be ignored in Class 5A, even against top-ranked Buford on the GHSA’s biggest stage Thursday.
In what was their fourth meeting this season, the Lady Falcons presented a solid case, pushing the reigning state champs and their Region 8-5A rivals for much of the way. But just like all the other games before, the Lady Wolves came out on top.
Buford managed to pull away late for a 60-49 win at the Macon Coliseum to secure back-to-back Class 5A crowns and bring the program its sixth state title overall under coach Gene Durden. Buford’s current senior class of 10 goes down as yet another monumental group for the program, having won three state titles in four seasons.
“This was the cherry on top of the cake for them,” Durden said. “This is something they’ve worked hard for their whole four years. Having this much pressure to deliver in this situation, it’s just great for them to do it.”
As for the Lady Falcons (26-7), this marks the end of another historic run for the program, which includes back-to-back state semifinal appearances and a first-ever state championship berth.
“I am extremely proud of our group, I’m extremely proud of what they stand for, extremely proud of their fight and what they’ve been able to accomplish over the last four years, especially our group of seniors,” Flowery Branch coach Courtney Newton-Gonzalez said. “I wouldn’t wanna coach any other 12 kids in this state. Period.”
The top-seeded Lady Wolves (29-3) used a handful of well-timed runs to belittle a spirited Flowery Branch charge that kept the margin in single digits through the third period. Buford senior Tory Ozment was the culprit behind that, racking up a game-high 28 points with seven boards and five assists to conclude her varsity basketball career before she enrolls at Michigan State.
“Tory has done it for four years, but she saved the best for last,” Durden said. “(Tory) just did a great job of controlling the game, and we needed her to play well to be successful against good teams. Sometimes we just turn her loose, and tonight she did a great job.”
In her final varsity game, Flowery Branch senior guard Taniyah Worth also showcased her Division I talents to lead the second-seeded Lady Falcons’ charge. The Alabama pledge scored a team-high 18 points with 14 rebounds for a double-double and added four assists. She fouled out with less than two minutes left in the final period, untucking her jersey and walking off the court for an emotional exit.
Caroline Wysocki added 10 points behind Worth as the only other Lady Falcon to amass double digits, followed by Jenna Sutton with seven and Ashlee Lock with six.
Buford’s switch to a half-court defense in the second half also played a factor in maintaining a lead against Flowery Branch, which fell to 0-7 in the all-time series against its region foe.
“We know they have trouble with our half-court defense,” Durden said. “Then we came out, turned it into a half-court game and that’s something we can grind with. And we grinded it out.”
It started out just like all the other meetings — a back-and-forth, tight bout between two neighboring rivals. The Lady Falcons struck first, with Worth putting the Lady Falcons up to 4-0 less than three minutes into the opening quarter on a layup before Ozment began to make her mark.
The Michigan State signee scored five straight points in response, knocking down a long, contested 3-pointer from the right wing.
Worth added a three-point play and dished to Locke underneath for another basket as Flowery Branch took its second lead of the opening period at 11-9.
That time spent ahead was short-lived.
Ozment drilled her second trey of the contest seconds later, then Audrey Weiner intercepted a ball at midcourt and finished with a basket for a 14-11 lead at the first-quarter buzzer.
The Lady Wolves closed the half by capitalizing on a number of opportunities created through their defense. CJ Johnson and Ozment accounted for an 11-4 Buford run, and Johnson capped the surge with a steal and banked layup to make it 30-23 at halftime.
“Against Buford, you can’t have lapses and, you know, we did toward the end of the first quarter and at the end of the half,” Newton-Gonzalez said. “Anytime you give them those easy buckets, they’re gonna make you pay. That hurt us.”
Flowery Branch continued its pursuit, twice cutting the margin to four points in the third quarter. Worth attacked the boards while dishing to teammates and weaving her way through traffic in the paint to lead the rally. She even two-stepped off the dribble for a score inside to cut it 32-29.
The Lady Falcons matched a 7-0 Buford run sparked by an Ozment trey minutes later. They got baskets from Worth and Locke, along with a 3-pointer from senior Lexie Sengkhammee, to cut it to four for a second time at 40-36 shortly before the end of the third period.
Ozment continued to steer Buford by notching a layup and adding a pair of free throws to give the Lady Wolves a 10-point lead. Buford led by as much as 12 despite a last-ditch surge by Flowery Branch as Worth and Wysocki combined for 11 of the Lady Falcons’ 12 fourth-quarter points.
Newton-Gonzalez waves goodbye to a senior class of four comprised of Worth, Sengkhammee (an Emmanuel College signee), Jenna Sutton and Carly Shaw, who lifted the program to new heights.
They were part of the Lady Falcons’ first-ever three-peat at Lanierland, back-to-back state semifinals and one monumental run toward a first-ever state championship berth. In this year’s playoffs, each one took turns leading the way as Flowery Branch defeated Rome, Lithia Springs and Dutchdown before pulling off a come-from-behind victory in the state semifinals against Harris County.
Sengkhammee and Worth were two vital starting staples for the program. Sengkhammee made 122 consecutive starts over her four years at Flowery Branch, while Worth — a first team All-State selection — ends her varsity career having scored more than 1,000 points.
“I am so proud of what these seniors have done for our program, I am so proud of what they stand for off the court, and they left their mark,” Newton-Gonzalez said. “People know who Flowery Branch is now, not just in Hall County, but in this state too. They know what our program is about, and that’s something to hold your head high for.”
With five juniors and three freshman on this year’s roster, Flowery Branch seems to have the framework for continued success.
“They set the bar high and set the standards high,” Newton-Gonzalez said. “Hopefully our kids can see that and follow their lead.”