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Strong defense has Flowery Branch girls basketball on a roll in first-ever trip to state semifinals
Lady Falcons will take on defending Class AAAAA champs Southwest DeKalb on Saturday
Flowery Branch's Ashley Woodroffe (11) dribbles the ball Friday, Feb. 17, 2017, as Flowery Branch beat North Springs in first round of Class AAAAA state playoffs at Flowery Branch High School. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Saturday at Columbus State University
Flowery Branch vs. Southwest DeKalb, 2 p.m.
Buford girls vs. Griffin, 6 p.m.
Buford boys vs. Fayette County, 8 p.m.

Class A Private
Saturday at Cobb County Civic Center
Lakeview Academy girls vs. Wesleyan, 6 p.m.
Lakeview Academy boys vs. Southwest Atlanta Christian, 8 p.m.

All season long, Courtney Newton-Gonzalez told her Flowery Branch girls basketball team that defense wins games.

It also helped the Lady Falcons make history.

No. 2 seed Flowery Branch will make its first-ever appearance in the state semifinals when it takes on top-seeded Southwest DeKalb, the defending Class AAAAA champion, at 2 p.m. Saturday at Columbus State University in Columbus.

Newton-Gonzalez said defense has spurred her squad’s postseason run, during which it has allowed just 38 points per game despite playing a pair of road contests against No. 1 seeds.

“Our pressure defense has always been something that we’ve taken pride in and have done a good job of throughout the year,” the coach said. “They’ve just locked into game plans and what we’ve asked them to do with certain players and personnel. They’ve made adjustments well, too.”

The No. 4 Lady Falcons (24-6) punched their ticket to the semifinals with a 61-46 win at Carrollton, which had lost only one game before Tuesday’s quarterfinals. Flowery Branch led by as many as 24 in the fourth quarter thanks to a press defense that consistently forced turnovers.

“(Newton-Gonzalez) tells us all the time how important defense is, so that’s something that we’ve worked on a lot throughout the season,” senior forward Julianne Sutton said. “Right now it’s do-or-die, so we’re focusing on that.”
Now the Lady Falcons are the only team remaining in Class AAAAA that didn’t win its region championship.

That’s only because Buford, which faces Griffin in the other girls semifinal at 6 p.m., completed its undefeated run in Region 8-AAAAA by beating Flowery Branch 53-38 in the region tournament championship Feb. 11. The Lady Falcons lost their two regular-season matchups by narrower margins, falling 53-44 on Dec. 26 and 51-46 on Jan. 24.

But before Flowery Branch can receive a shot at revenge against its region rival, it must get past the No. 2 Lady Panthers (26-4).

“They’re a really great team. They’re very well coached and athletic,” Newton-Gonzalez said. “At this point, the four teams that are left are obviously talented teams. So we’ve got to just make sure that we’re focused and sticking to our game plan and what we do well.”

That includes continuing its smothering brand of defense against Southwest DeKalb senior forward Jada Walton, a Texas A&M signee who scored 27 points in her team’s 71-56 quarterfinal win at Eagle’s Landing.

Walton isn’t the Lady Panthers’ only Division I prospect — 6-foot-3 senior center Ogheneruona Uwusiaba is set to continue her basketball career at Central Florida.

Southwest DeKalb pairs its two superstars with a press defense similar to the Lady Falcons’, one that allowed just 25 and 26 points in first- and second-round playoff wins against Kell and McIntosh, respectively.

Sutton and junior guard Taniyah Worth expect the semifinal contest to be a defensive affair.

“It might be a low-scoring game because both teams are focused on the defensive side of the ball,” Sutton said. “I’m excited to see how we do against them. They’re one of the biggest teams in the playoffs right now, too.”

Flowery Branch counters with a team comprised of eight juniors and seniors. Worth has scored 17.3 points per game in the playoffs, Sutton is a force in the paint and junior guard Lexie Sengkhammee is a reliable 3-point threat.

Yet for all their weapons, the Lady Falcons lack semifinal experience.

They seemed primed to make their first appearance at that stage last season before Brunswick outscored them 21-9 in the fourth quarter to capture a 52-47 quarterfinal win. Even Newton-Gonzalez, a Flowery Branch standout who played college basketball at South Carolina, went only as far as the state quarterfinals as a freshman in 2003-04.

But she thinks her team’s inexperience in the semifinals, plus its success on the road in the playoffs, might actually be beneficial.

“They really don’t know what to expect, so they’re just going into it as another game,” Newton-Gonzalez said. “They obviously know that there’s a lot of attention around it, and the community has been supporting us. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to play a basketball game. They’re very focused on that.

“We’re used to the routine (of playing on the road) now, leaving and packing and all that stuff. So now we’re ready for it.”

Sutton and Worth said they and their teammates are confident their preparation, chemistry and veteran leadership will lead them to even better things in this already record-breaking season.

They know it’ll take some more stout defense, too.

“Coach always says defense wins games,” Worth said.

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