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High school basketball: Flowery Branch girls ride experience into second-ever state final four
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Flowery Branch guard Taniyah Worth (22) shoots the ball during the Class 5A basketball quarterfinal game between Flowery Branch and Dutchtown in Flowery Branch, on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018. - photo by David Barnes

Following last year’s Class 5A semifinal loss to Southwest DeKalb, Flowery Branch High girls basketball coach Courtney Newton-Gonzalez was able to draw some wisdom from the heartbreaking defeat: Sometimes, you have get there first to feel what it’s like.

That was all the third-year coach needed to fuel the fire going into the 2017-18 season. And throughout this year, there was no revisiting the past, nor a need to simulate certain scenarios from that 66-63 loss last March. 

Now it’s all about seizing the opportunity that lies before her Lady Falcons.

In just its second-ever state semifinal appearance, No. 2 seed Flowery Branch (25-6) will clash with top-seeded Harris County (28-2) at 6 p.m. today in Fort Valley to decide the second of the two teams that will play for a Class 5A title next Thursday, March 8, in Macon. 

“(I told them after Friday’s practice) just be confident in who they are. We’ve prepared all season for moments like this,” Newton-Gonzalez said. “We played a tough schedule, and we’ve got a great opportunity in front of us. Just focus on the little things, and just go out there and play their game.”

Meanwhile, No. 1 seed and defending Class 5A champion Buford (27-3) will play fellow top seed Villa Rica (26-1) in the earlier semifinal game that tips off at 2 p.m. in Fort Valley.

The Lady Falcons solidified back-to-back state semifinal trips following Tuesday’s quarterfinal win against Dutchtown, having never been beyond the third round until last season. The roles have flipped for Flowery Branch since last season’s semifinal, when it was a first-timer pitted against what was then a defending state champion playing its eighth state semifinal. 

The Lady Falcons, now adept at winning on the playoff stage, face a first-time state semifinal squad in Harris County.

Newton-Gonzalez isn’t going to look too much into that either.

“You know, we’ve got a great Harris (County) team we’re playing, and just from that scouting report, (we’re) just focusing on what we need to do well (tonight),” the coach said.

“At this point, everybody’s a talented team, and we’re obviously going to lean on our experiences from throughout the year. Most teams do who (they) are at this point.”

The Lady Tigers, coached by Steffanie Ramsey, are winners of 20 straight games since Dec. 28, 2017. Their last loss came Dec. 23 in overtime against top-ranked Wesleyan Christian Academy (North Carolina), per’s North Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association Class 3A rankings. 

Harris County boasts a Mississippi State signee, Jessika Carter, the No. 8 post player in the nation, according to The 6-foot-5 senior — who averages 20 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks per contest for the Lady Tigers — scored her 2,000th career point while boosting Harris County to a 45-43 win against Carrollton in Tuesday’s quarterfinal game. 

Carter is also the oldest of sisters ZiKeyah Carter-Ransom (a 6-foot-5 power forward) and Ny’Azjha Carter-Ransom (a small forward), two other contributors for the Region 1-5A champion.

“(Carter) is going to play in the (Southeastern Conference), so we know she’s a great player and she is obviously skilled around the basket and has great size,” Newton-Gonzalez said. “We just gotta respect her and be ready to play tough defense, and do the things we talked about all week with her.” 

Luckily, Flowery Branch has arguably the best player in Hall County and another SEC commit, Taniyah Worth. 

The Alabama signee, who built a reputation for her big-game performances after last year’s semifinal performance, tallied a double-double of 34 points and 12 rebounds with six assists and a pair of steals to propel the Lady Falcons to a 70-56 quarterfinal win Tuesday. Worth previously accumulated a 33-point, seven-rebound performance to upstage Southwest DeKalb’s Jada Walton, who now plays for Texas A&M, last March. 

In addition, Newton-Gonzalez continues to see the Lady Falcons perform across the board as a slew of players besides Worth are rising to the challenge.

It all goes back to last year’s experience.

“We have talked to our girls about the fact that they’ve played in games like this, and use the things that they’ve learned from (last) year, and hopefully bring that to (today’s game),” Newton-Gonzalez said. “But at this point, it’s just sticking to that game plan, making adjustments and playing our style of basketball and doing the best we can.”

On the other half of the bracket, Buford pulled away from Eagle’s Landing in the quarterfinals on Tuesday after putting up 75 points in each of its previous two playoff routs. 

Buford continues to ride the perennial success of its senior class, which boasts a 16-1 playoff mark under longtime coach Gene Durden. Durden’s 10 seniors, including college-bound Tory Ozment (a Michigan State commit) and Audrey Weiner (Air Force Academy), are in their fourth consecutive state semifinal and seek their third career state title.

Villa Rica, meanwhile, is in the thick of its deepest playoff run in recent memory under first-year coach Tammy Norred. After being eliminated in the second and first rounds the previous two seasons, Villa Rica topped Fayette County in the quarterfinals Tuesday to book a trip to Fort Valley State University against the reigning champs.

The Lady Wolves have won 12 straight games, while the Lady Wildcats are winners of their last 11 since suffering their lone loss to Carrollton on Jan. 23.

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