The Flowery Branch girls basketball team’s season was one of incredible feats, but it ended in heartbreak on Saturday in Columbus.
After making history with a first-ever appearance in the Georgia High School Association state semifinal game, a lack of experience on the big stage cost the No. 2 seed Lady Falcons, while the poise of defending Class AAAAA Southwest Dekalb manifested late.
A 8-0 scoring run to open the fourth quarter granted the passage for the top-seeded Panthers, who jumped ahead for the final time to eventually hold on for a 66-63 win inside Columbus State University’s Lumpkin Center Arena, in what was a see-saw affair from the start.
“I’m happy for our kids. They’ve really worked hard. We’ve got a good group of kids and the community is really supportive,” said Southwest Dekalb coach Kathleen Richey Walton, who notched career win No. 350 in the Panthers advancing to the state final for the second-straight year.
The Panthers (27-4) face Buford for the state title at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the University of Georgia.
The Lady Falcons (24-6) held steady and hung with powerhouse Southwest Dekalb for much of the way behind a monster 33-point, seven-rebound outing by junior guard Taniyah Worth, who even outscored Panthers senior guard and Texas A&M signee Jada Walton (23 points).
Senior Julianne Sutton and junior Lexie Sengkhammee pitched in some clutch shots throughout as well for the Lady Falcons with 10 and nine points, respectively.
The Falcons buoyed a three-point advantage into the fourth quarter before the big-game jitters showed. They turned it over on three of four possessions to start, and it all snowballed from there. Two baskets underneath by the Panthers’ sophomore Kennedy Mormom, free throws by teammate Chantz Cherry (10 points) and putback by senior Uwusiaba Ogheneruona (13 points) stretched the margin to 52-47 at the midway mark.
It was the Panthers’ first time ahead since the end of the opening quarter, during which sharpshooter Lexie Sengkhammee (nine points) nailed her first trey of the contest to put the Falcons ahead before the end of the period.
“Basketball is a game of runs, and they went on one at the right time,” said Flowery Branch Coach Courtney-Newton Gonzalez.
The Falcons responded with a 10-4 run, vaulted behind 3-pointers from Worth and Sengkhammee to knot it at 57-57 with 3:01 left. But the Panthers were able to close it out from the charity stripe, converting 9 of 12 attempts late to fend off a last ditch effort by the Falcons, as a Sutton basket underneath made it 66-63 with .7 seconds remaining.
“That team has been in the Final Four eight times for a reason, and this is our first. And yes, we wanted more,” Newton-Gonzalez said. “Our kids are heartbroken, but sometimes, you gotta get here to feel what it’s like.”
Things were clicking early on. After Sengkhammee’s first-quarter 3, the Lady Falcons built up an 11-1 surge that lasted well into the second period. A steal and layup by Ashley Woodroffe gave the Falcons a nine-point edge before the Panthers sunk their first basket of the period at the 3:55 mark.
The Falcons’ reputable defense also created additional scoring opportunities in the half, Worth taking full advantage.
The junior’s physicality and persistence inside kept the Panthers off-balance, and the Falcons ahead. She capped a big first half by converting a pair of three-point plays inside the midway point of the second period, her second stretching Flowery Branch’s lead to seven with one minute, 12 seconds remaining in the half.
“Courtney (Newton-Gonzalez) had her players ready to play,” added Walton. “(The Falcons) came out and executed. Our kids have been here before and they looked like deer in a headlight.”
But things plateaued, then digressed shortly after the Falcons’ two defensive specialists, senior Queen Scott and Ashley Woodroffe picked up their third infractions at the start of the third period.
Newton-Gonzalez declared that to be the turning point for Southwest Dekalb.
“That hurt us, they’re our defensive stoppers, and they set the tone for us on the defensive end,” Newton-Gonzalez added. “Those two quick fouls at the beginning of the second half, that was a big point in the game.”
Worth, who entered intermission leading all scorers with 17 points, eventually gave in to the Panthers’ adjustments, mustering a pair of field goals during the final quarter.
(Slowing Worth in the second half) was our game plan three days ago,” Walton added. “The kids came out and executed in the second half.”
Newton-Gonzalez said the loss wasn’t for a lack of effort. In the end, experience was the bigger factor.
I’m proud of how our kids played,” Newton-Gonzalez said. “Taniyah played like how she plays, Lexie hits some huge shots. ...They’re heartbroken, but they wanted more. They just proved to whoever was watching that they could hang with anybody in the state. They’ve proven that all year. ...the defending champions, they’re there for a reason.”
Newton-Gonzalez says farewell to four seniors — starters Julianne Sutton and Queen Scott, along with Christina Murchison and Janoah Williams — after repeating as Lanierland Champions and raising the bar for the returning starters to include All-Region guards Taniyah Worth and Sengkhammee, as well as future groups to pass through the program.
“They set the standard,” Courtney-Newton Gonzalez said. “They’re the reason why Flowery Branch is being talked about as one of the best team’s in the state.
“So they’ve gotta hang their heads on that, but just realize we lost to a really good basketball team today.”
BUFORD GIRLS 88, GRIFFIN 50: Lady Wolves’ longtime coach Gene Durden always talks about starting fast, more so in the first and third quarters. The top-seeded Wolves out of the Region 8 did just that to solidify a fifth-straight title game appearance Saturday night in Columbus.
Buford (28-2) jolted ahead by 33 on a 23-4 extended run that lasted the majority of the third quarter, and the Wolves dominated the Bears 32-9 for the period.
“I think the third quarter was what really pulled the game apart,” said Durden.
But Buford started fast before then. Griffin (28-2) — in its first state semifinal since 1998 — used a 8-0 scoring run, all accounted for by Bears’ Andeija Puckett (16 points), to keep it a two-point contest heading in the second quarter.
The Wolves answered.
They stretched their lead to 28-18 following a 8-2 spurt to start the second period. From there, Buford’s swarming defense proved too much for Griffin, and the Wolves were able to create even more opportunities during a 21-point second quarter to enter the half ahead by 12.
Eleven players for Buford scored in what was their highest total since Week 2 of the regular season. Senior Tory Ozment led the pack with 14 points, followed by Snoody Johnson with 11, Jessica Nelson and Audrey Weiner with 10. Rachel Dobbs and Marissa Bruce notched nine points apiece as well.
“It don’t matter how you win, as long as you advance. I am just so pleased we’re going to the state championship again,” Durden said. “This group of girls really worked extremely hard. I am just really thankful for the way they represented us.”
The Lady Wolves play Southwest Dekalb for the state title 6 p.m. Wednesday at the University of Georgia in Athens.
No. 1 BUFORD BOYS 83, NO. 6 FAYETTE COUNTY 60: The Wolves (28-2) avenged last year’s first-round loss to the Tigers (23-8) in the best possible way, using a string of runs and adding an alley-oop as the exclamation point in the final quarter to secure a spot in the Class AAAAA title game for the first time in three years.
With the win, Buford will face Cedar Shoals for the state championship at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the University of Georgia.
The Wolves were paced by Marcus Watson with 25 points, followed by Alex Jones with 23 and David Viti with 16. Noah Gurley added 13 points for Fayette County.
The Wolves sprinted ahead 21-7 with 3:15 left in the opening quarter before the Tigers began their pursuit. They responded with a 10-4 run, senior Austin Nesmith (21 points) sinking a bucket to bring the Tigers within six before the end of the period.
The Tigers kept climbing, adding a pair of dunks along the way to twice make it a two-point game. A one-handed jam by Jaylen Holloway in the fastbreak awakened the visiting crowd to its feet the 3:40 mark to make it 31-28. And a 3-pointer by Josh Dupree cut it to two a second time at 33-31.
That was the closest Fayette County could come.
The Wolves ensued with another 8-3 run before intermission on consecutive 3s by Alex Jones and Marcus Watson, then a Tobi Obasanya layup. The Wolves led 42-35 at halftime.
After outscoring Fayette County 20-16 in the third, an alley-oop connection from Jones to Watson later put the Wolves up by 15 with 6:24 left.