After letting a first-ever state semifinal game slip through its grasp a year ago, the Flowery Branch High girls basketball team entered 2017-18 on a mission.
It was a hunger coach Courtney Newton-Gonzalez identified as the driving force for her team throughout the regular season, and during the Lady Falcons’ previous two playoff wins in this year’s Class 5A tournament.
Those very traits fueled the Lady Falcons to yet another monumental win Tuesday, February 27, in Flowery Branch.
Behind a mammoth postseason performance by senior Taniyah Worth and an explosive third quarter outing, Flowery Branch pulled away from Dutchdown for a 70-56 third-round playoff victory, confirming its return to the Class 5A semifinals that takes place 6 p.m. Saturday in Fort Valley.
“It’s huge. ...Just huge,” said third-year coach Courtney Newton-Gonzalez. “For us to go back-to-back final fours, I am just so-so proud of that. I think this is something they will remember for the rest of their lives, and just be able to hang their hats on that.”
With the win, Flowery Branch (25-6) moves on to face top-seeded Harris County in a state semifinal game at Fort Valley State University on Saturday in Fort Valley. Harris County, ranked second behind No. 1 Buford in Score Atlanta’s most recent poll, defeated Carrollton 45-43 in its quarterfinal game Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Dutchtown’s (23-5) postseason run ends in the state quarterfinals one week after upsetting 26-game winner and fifth-ranked Ware County. India Bellamy led the Bulldogs with 23 points, followed by Mariah Holder with 12.
“It’s a good feeling,” said Worth, whose double-double of a game-high 34 points and 12 rebounds along with a perfect mark from the free-throw line (10 of 10) paced the Flowery Branch offense. “This is the last time...about to graduate. So I’m glad that I’m moving on with this group of girls.”
Senior point guard Lexie Sengkhamme (10 points, two 3-pointers) and freshman Ashlee Locke (10 points, seven boards) were the other two Lady Falcons scorers with double-digit outings, followed by Jenna Sutton with eight and Ashley Woodroffe with six. Worth even dished a team-high six assists, had a pair of steals and one echoing block on defense to cap yet another stellar postseason outing for the upperclassman in her final game inside Flowery Branch High’s gymnasium.
“For Taniyah to pass the way she did and have (34) points as well, I think that was probably one of the best games of her career,” Newton-Gonzalez said of her all-state guard. “Just the way she played defense and just the way she moved the ball. She carried us in the first half.”
The first half was a back-and-forth battle between two top-10 programs in the Class 5A. After six lead changes in the second period, the Bulldogs behind lead scorer Bellamy entered the locker rooms with a 31-28 halftime lead despite the domineering Worth.
Worth used every bit of her Division I-caliber talents, to give the Bulldogs fits. The Alabama signee accounted for 20 of Flowery Branch’s 28 points in the first half, even eurostepping Bulldog defenders in the lane for a bevy of scores.
The Bulldogs got baskets from Holder and senior Jordan Maney, not to mention back-to-back 3-pointers from Aniyah Harris and Kennedy Freeman on the back end of the second period against the zone look of the Lady Falcon defense to keep the pressure on the hosts.
“We were still standing a little too much,” Newton-Gonzalez said. “(Dutchtown) was getting way too many easy baskets. I felt like we were boxing out OK, but we weren’t getting out in our transition offense, and that’s something we’re (usually) so great at.”
And then the flood gates opened for Flowery Branch, as Worth began to pad her stat line to aid the Falcons in a third-quarter onslaught.
Freshman forward Ashlee Locke scored consecutive layups from underneath and even dished to Sengkhammee for a kickout 3-pointer to supplement a 9-2 scoring run to start the third. Seconds later, Worth added huge crowd-pleasing block and assisted a Woodroffe layup on the other end in the same sequence to ignite a 14-2 surge spanning the final four minutes of the period. The Falcons also assisted five-straight baskets, while getting one more 3-pointer from Sengkhamme and a Worth and-1 combo to take a 51-38 lead before the buzzer.
Dutchtown was yielded to only two field goals as the Falcons dominated the third quarter, 23-7, good enough for a double-digit lead heading into the last eight-minute stretch.
“Anytime you’re down at halftime in the playoffs you gotta put your best on the line and see what they’re made off,” Newton-Gonzalez said. “Just to see that fight, and the way they came out in that third quarter with that swing we had, was just really fun to watch.”
The Bulldogs weren’t done, though. They scored seven-straight, including a Mariah Holder trey to shrink the margin down to six just inside the six-minute mark of the fourth. But the Lady Falcons shot 86 percent (13 of 15) from the stripe to belittle the last ditch rally, with Worth sinking her final seven attempts to elicit a warm hug from her coach as she received her final curtain call with 25.4 seconds left.
“I was extremely proud of them,” Newton-Gonzalez said. “You know, we played a great team tonight and (Dutchtown) had a great first half. I thought that we just needed to settle down and play our game.”
The Lady Falcons are still not completely satisfied, though, their coach may let them celebrate this one.
“We’re continuing and we’re hungry but, at this moment we’re proud for our program and we’re proud for what these Lady Falcons have accomplished and what this program has accomplished these last couple of years,” the coach said.