Courtney Newton-Gonzalez knew it was going to come down to her senior leadership after a near disastrous start to Friday’s 57th annual Lanierland Championship at Gainesville High.
The group that was a liability for the Flowery Branch girls basketball team to start became its saving grace in the end.
Despite entering the final quarter with all five starters in foul trouble, the top-seeded Lady Falcons led by a select few rallied late to fend off No. 7 seed West Hall 59-50 and capture their second-straight county championship.
The Lady Falcons (12-2) trailed by five entering the final quarter but got it all back — and then some — after 30 seconds.
They locked in and exploded on a six-minute, 14-0 run while forcing four Spartan turnovers. Senior Julianne Sutton racked up eight points during that span, her third basket from underneath off a Taniyah Worth swing pass at the 5:24 mark eliciting a West Hall timeout.
"Kudos to our kids," Newton-Gonzalez said. "We put our starters back in to start the fourth quarter, even with a little foul trouble, and we got an early foul in the fourth quarter, which is huge. So proud of the way they locked in and focused."
The sudden swing in momentum came minutes after junior Anna McKendree caught fire on the other end of the floor. The returning Times Player of the Year accounted for 15 of the Lady Spartans’ 16 third-quarter points — 12 coming from way outside the arc — to keep them ahead for the time being.
The hot streak was the product of a bizarre and rare first-half slump, said Newton-Gonzalez.
“We were trying to go over the screens, but when you get in foul trouble, it hurt us a little bit,” she said. “(McKendree)is a great player, and she’s going to get her points.”
Senior Queen Scott was matched with the night’s leading scorer McKendree and held her to just a pair of field goals in response to her third-quarter surge.
“It all goes back to defense,” said Sutton, who finished with 13 points, nine rebounds and two blocks. “Our defense is what pushes us year-round, and just Queen locking down on Anna just to give us that cushion, that space during that 14-0 run. Our defense had a big-big part of it. It was just awesome, to just gather around our teammates, just to push forward and fight back.”
Scott finished with 11 points, a fitting performance for the four-year starter whose birthday was announced on the loud speaker. Worth clocked out with 10 points, while Ashley Woodroffe added eight. Sutton and Worth also represent Flowery Branch on this year’s all-tournament team. The Lady Falcons also got much-needed minutes from senior Janoah Williams, who had six points with four rebounds and a block in place of Sutton.
The Spartans (11-5) came up short in their first title game appearance since 2000 after getting 30 points from McKendree, who drained a team-high four 3-pointers in the second half. Macy Passmore finished behind Mckendree with 13 points.
“I’m proud of the girls and what they accomplished,” said Richerson. “It’s tough too, because we wanted to win. We thought we had a good chance of winning. But I tell you, you get to play a team like Flowery Branch, that’s one of the best in 5A, it’s only gonna help you get better.”
The Lady Falcons outscored the Spartans 14-9 in the second quarter to climb within one before intermission, but not before feeling the effects of a chippy first half, as both sides maxed out on team fouls. Sutton, Worth, Lexie Sengkhammee, Woodroffe and senior Scott all entered halftime with three personal fouls.
During halftime, Scott was one to take ownership of her mistakes in the locker room, and reassured her teammates they had a whole other half to play. That seemed to help.
"I told them it was my fault. I had to make up for it at halftime," said Scott.
"Not all of our starts have been in foul trouble — ever. We were all shook, but we had to adjust to it."
Regardless, Newton-Gonzalez said the plan never changed — the Lady Falcons just finally did what they wanted to do all along in the fourth quarter.
“We haven’t played as bad as we did in the first half in a while,” Newton-Gonzalez added. “Especially to be able to overcome that, this team hasn’t had many opportunities to overcome a bad half. So to be able to see that at the end of the year, at the Lanierland championship, is something to be proud of.”
LANIERLAND ALL-TOURNAMENT GIRLS TEAM
Avery Prather, West Hall, Sr.
Taylor Hawks, Gainesville, Sr.
Lindsey Caudell, Chestatee, Jr.
Sadie Cleveland, North Hall, Sr.
Kylah Mize, East Hall, Sr.
Amy Berry, Johnson, Fr.
Hanna Grogan, Lakeview Academy, Sr.
Taniyah Worth, Flowery Branch, Jr.
Julianne Sutton, Flowery Branch, Sr.