While trailing at halftime in Saturday’s Class 5A semifinal game against Harris County, the Flowery Branch girls basketball team gave coach Courtney Newton-Gonzalez a look she may remember for a long time.
It revealed that these Lady Falcons came to finish what they couldn’t do a season ago on this very same stage.
They re-emerged from the break to deliver a stellar second-half performance, engraving another mark in the program’s history.
Caroline Wysocki’s career-high 26 points paired with a monster second-half by senior Taniyah Worth propelled Flowery Branch to a 72-55 win against Harris County at Fort Valley State University, earning it a first-ever spot in the state championship game.
Junior Ashley Woodroffe was the third Lady Falcon to score in the double digits with 16 points to confirm a rematch with region foe and reigning state champion Buford in the Class 5A final next Thursday in Macon.
“I knew if they kept fighting and fighting we would have an opportunity,” said Newton-Gonzalez, who watched her team overcome a 15-point first-half deficit in their second-consecutive state semifinal appearance. “It was just fun to watch them continue to fight, and not put their heads down. That’s what this part of the season is about.”
Newton-Gonzalez praised the athleticism and tenacity shown by her guards against the size of Harris County (28-3), a team fronted by Mississippi State commit Jessika Carter. The 6-foot-5 post player racked up 26 points and 12 boards for a double-double to go with three blocks to lead the Lady Tigers, whose seasons ended on the heels of a 20-game win streak.
Taziha Fanning added 17 points behind Carter.
Newton-Gonzalez acknowledged a switch to a more effective pressure defense also proved to be key, after the Lady Tigers jumped ahead 23-8 in the opening quarter.
“I cannot speak enough for our guards and the defense they played, you know, Lexie, Ashley Woodroffe and Caroline,” the third-year coach added. “That’s something we haven’t had to do all season, and for them to be locked in and put that pressure defense on them was really special.”
Coming off a massive 34-point quarterfinal outing just days prior, Worth produced more postseason magic for Flowery Branch (26-6). The Alabama signee scored all of her points in final 16 minutes of play after accruing three fouls in the first half — two early in the opening quarter — and sat on the bench for the majority of that span.
In the third quarter, Worth (seven rebounds) followed back-to-back baskets by Wysocki with a drive and layup to knot the score at 35-all.
She added 10 more points with three steals and a pair of assists, including one to senior Lexie Sengkhamme, who capped a 20-2 scoring run with a 3-pointer as Flowery Branch’s lead ballooned to 49-37 before the end of the period.
“It just got in us — big game — you know. It’s going to happen. But we came through,” Wysocki said. “After the first quarter, beginning of the second half, 'T' (Worth) came in and really helped us out. She’s usually there the whole game for us.”
As Worth rode the bench in the first half, Wysocki quickly filled the void. scoring the first basket for Flowery Branch and then went on to account for 13 of the Lady Falcons’ 25 points in the first half.
Wysocki’s opportunism on defense was especially apparent in the second quarter, snatching steals and dishing to Woodroffe for points in transition as Flowery Branch continued to trim a Harris County lead.
Shortly after Sengkhammee sank her first 3-pointer, Wysocki captivated the crowd with a nifty move inside for a score that cut the Lady Falcons’ deficit down to seven, and the Lady Falcons eventually finished the half on a 12-2 run for a 29-25 score.
Wysocki finished with four steals, three assists and three boards to pad a career night.
“We would have been in a huge hole without her in the first half,” Newton-Gonzalez said. “You know, just to see her put the team on her back for a little bit, and even defensively in the second half -- she got our defense going, her and Woodroffe. I’m just so proud of her and her focus.”
Flowery Branch sealed the game in the fourth quarter as Worth, Woodroffe and Wysocki combined to make 10 of 11 from the free throw line.
The Lady Falcons now gladly welcome the task of playing neighboring rival Buford, which has beaten Flowery Branch in the last two region title games. The Lady Wolves won all three meetings this year, including a narrow victory over Flowery Branch in the Region 8-5A title game on Feb. 10.
Newton-Gonzalez was not surprised to see the Lady Wolves come out on top earlier in the afternoon. They are a defending state champion for a reason, she said.
“That just speaks volume to what our region is about and what we’ve had to face all year long,” she added. “Buford is such a great team, and we know we gotta play good basketball against them. But I told the girls, you can’t win a state championship unless you play in the game.”
BUFORD GIRLS 60, VILLA RICA 46: For the second time this week, coach Gene Durden’s girls basketball program had to grind one out against a determined opponent in the latter stages of this Class 5A tournament.
Once again, his Lady Wolves prevailed.
Behind the senior tandem of Audrey Weiner (20 points) and Tory Ozment (18 points, eight rebounds), Buford (28-3) pulled away late to land a spot in the state final for the third time in the last four seasons. It also adds to a decade-long run of dominance for Durden and his girls basketball program.
“We’re just happy,” Durden said. “This makes it 8 out of 10 years that we’re back in the state championship. So to be there in three different classifications just says a lot about our kids and our program.”
What his seasoned roster did in order to advance only sweetened the pot for the tenured coach.
The Lady Wolves’ overcame what Durden called a weird night offensively by deploying an always-relentless force on Villa Rica from the defensive side, generating 25 turnovers and 10 takeaways to offset a poor shooting night.
Buford shot just 34 percent (17 of 50) from the field and 42 percent (11 of 26) from the free throw line against a Villa Rica squad that certainly made the most of the state semifinal atmosphere.
Weiner, however, didn’t seem to pay much attention to the poor offensive numbers, making a team-high five 3s kept the Lady Wildcats chasing. Her final two 3-pointers kept Buford in front by double-digits.
It was a much-needed boost for the defending state champs with Ozment rotating on-and-off the bench in foul trouble in the second half. Ozment fouled out with 2:34 left, minutes after Villa Rica’s post threat DeAsia Merrill (eight points) made her emotional exit with five fouls.
“Audrey all during the season has hit some big shots,” Durden said. “Tonight, she put a couple of nails in the coffin late. She’s a shooter, and one thing about “A” is we’re not going to get upset if she misses and we’re not going to get overjoyed when she makes it. That’s what she does.”
The Michigan State signee Ozment scored 10 of her team’s 14 first quarter points to give Buford a one-point edge going into the second quarter. Villa Rica began to claw their way back.
A Tee Windom (12 points) 3-pointer capped a 7-0 Villa Rica run for a 29-all score right before the break.
Durden praised his team for staying the course while continuing to fend off its opposition. The Lady Wolves’ defense generated their final 10 turnovers, while yielding VIlla Rica to six field goals for the remainder.
Ebany Grant was another to pace Buford with seven points. Kya Styles (three steals), Weiner (two steals) and Ozment (two steals, four assists) added to the defensive efforts as well.