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Class 5A girls basketball championship: Buford, Flowery Branch to renew rivalry in title-game bout
Top-two squads of Region 8-5A will meet for fourth time this season at Macon Coliseum
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Flowery Branch guard Taniyah Worth (22) dribbles downcourt during the Region 8-5A game between Flowery Branch and Buford in Flowery Branch, on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018. - photo by David Barnes

Courtney Newton-Gonzalez and Gene Durden didn’t need to spend copious amounts of time in the film room this week scouting the rival. 

It has become the norm for neighboring rivals Flowery Branch and Buford, the top two squads of the Region 8-5A that clearly share an acquaintanceship after playing six times in the last two seasons.

And in a rare occurrence the GHSA will have that familiarity come to light on a championship stage as the No. 2 seed Lady Falcons (26-6) will battle the top-ranked Lady Wolves (28-3) for the Class 5A crown at 6 p.m. today at the Macon Coliseum.

The reigning Class 5A champion Lady Wolves, winners of 13-straight, have had the Lady Falcons’ number, winning every meeting these past two seasons since meshing into the same region. 

That part doesn’t seem to matter to Durden, who has taught his program to let go of the past and understand there won’t be anything personal about this one.

“The only thing that makes this game different is, somebody knows us and we know them. That’s the biggest thing,” Durden said. “Our kids are not going to take anything for granted. ...When you play in a state championship, I don’t care who you’re playing. ...You gotta be ready, whether it’s Flowery Branch or anybody else. We gotta be prepared to play our best basketball.”

Third-year coach Newton-Gonzalez had a similar discussion with her battle-tested Lady Falcons, who in their first state championship game will attempt to dethrone this perennial power today. 

“They’re defending state champions from a reason,” Newton-Gonzalez said. “But what we talked about all year is, you’ve got to get to the state championship game. You gotta have that opportunity to play for a state championship, and we know that once you get to this game, both teams are fighting for one thing.”

Flowery Branch appeared to be gaining some steam in two of those regular season meetings with Buford 2017-18, their most recent clash the Region 8-5A title game. The Lady Falcons only trailed Buford by two points at the half, and after weathering what appeared to be a knockout blow in the third period, rallied but came up just short in a 49-41 loss Feb. 10.

The Lady Falcons have not lost a game since, averaging 72 points through four state tournament victories. 

It’ll be a clash of contrasting styles. Steady and opportunistic guard play has been the MO for Flowery Branch, while the suffocating press of Buford’s defense has yielded its playoff opposition to a 36-point average. 

A more loose playing style and tight-knit bond shared amongst the Lady Falcons only adds to a historic postseason run for Newton-Gonzalez’s program.

“They just love each over, love being around each other,” Newton-Gonzalez said. “They are playing free right now, playing for one another. Anytime a team does that, it’s special. It’s what we watched on Saturday.” 

The guard tandem of Taniyah Worth, Ashley Woodroffe, Caroline Wyscocki and Lexie Sengkhammee even helped the Lady Falcons bypass a towering Harris County opponent and storm back from a 15-point, first-half deficit to win Saturday’s Class 5A semifinal in Fort Valley. Woodroffe and Wysocki shared an almost telepathic connection, hooking up on numerous baskets in transition to keep Flowery Branch within reach while Worth rode the bench in foul trouble in the first half.

Wysocki poured in a career-high 26 points, Woodroffe added 16 in the Lady Falcons’ 72-55 triumph at Fort Valley State.

“When your backs are against the wall, what are you going to do? How are you going to fight?” Newton-Gonzalez added. “That’s what they’re locked into right now.”

Durden took notice not long after the Lady Wolves pulled away from Villa Rica in the earlier Saturday semifinal game at the same venue.

“They have played pretty well on their side of the bracket and I know they’ve gained some confidence, with other people stepping up too,” said Durden, who is in his 13th season at Buford.

Just as much could be said about Durden’s current senior class of 10 at Buford led by Michigan State pledge Tory Ozment (14 points, 3 assists per game) and Audrey Weiner, who will be playing at Air Force next year. On top of powering a high-motored defense known for wearing down opponents. This will be the third time in the last four seasons this core batch has advanced to the state championship, having already won two. 

Durden’s program has won five state titles in the previous seven appearances.

“Nobody can take away what this group of seniors have already accomplished,” said Durden. “Win, lose or draw (tonight), this group of seniors has been one of the most successful in the program.”

Fans to fill the stands of the Macon Coliseum on Thursday will also see another future Division I talent inhabit the hardwood. Flowery Branch senior guard and Alabama signee Worth has averaged 21 points while boasting a 91 percent mark from the free-throw line for the duration of the state tournament. 

Longevity also plays a part, as four-year veteran and Emmanuel College commit Sengkhammee has 121-consecutive starts to date for the Lady Falcons.

Still, it all comes back to that acquaintanceship, and one question remains: Will there be any surprises this time?

“It’s gonna be us against them for the fourth time,” Durden said. “We know them, and they know us. We’ll just figure out who is gonna do what they need to do (tonight).”

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