The Flowery Branch girls basketball team, the No. 1 seed out of Region 8-AAAA North going into the region tournament in Loganville this week, should know better than most how important it is not to overlook any opponent in the region tournament.
Because last February, the Lady Falcons were the overlooked underdog.
Last season, Flowery Branch, in its first year in Class AAAA, struggled through the season and entered the region tournament with a 7-18 record. The team would need to win two games just to qualify for state, and three to reach the finals. It was an unlikely scenario for one of the subregion’s cellar dwellers.
Lady Falcons coach Hazel Hall, now in her fourth year at the helm of the program, didn’t expect the team to make the run they did.
“Honestly, no,” Hall said. “But I felt like we were in a good bracket and, if we could get by the play-in game, then we would have a chance.”
They had to rally to defeat Heritage 43-42 in overtime just to have the pleasure of facing North No. 2 Madison County, which the Lady Falcons beat 51-41. Then they upset South No. 1 Loganville 44-41 in the semifinals to become an unlikely region tournament finalist.
This time, Flowery Branch (18-7, 9-1) will need just one win, over South No. 4 Heritage (11-14, 2-6) at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Loganville High to qualify for the state tournament once again, and two wins to return to the region championship game.
Hall said that the experience last year will help this time around, even if the road to state and a region title this time is altogether different.
“I think it’s definitely going to help us. And now we’re more mature, we understand a whole lot more,” said the coach, who acknowledged how different it is to be at the top. “If you’re the hunter there’s not as much pressure. If you’re the one that’s being hunted, you’ve got to have your head on a swivel.
“Everyone wants the same opportunity we had last year.”
Last year the opportunity was even more than the team could have expected, even after the loss to region champs Clarke Central and then a loss in the first round of the playoffs to Mays.
This year the Lady Falcons want more.
“We want to go further,” Hall said. “These juniors went to the Sweet 16 as freshman, so getting there, or further, that’s the whole goal right now.”
The team is also eyeing a region title one year after losing to a talented, senior-led Clarke Central team 73-37 in the championship game.
The Lady Falcons have won seven consecutive games leading up to this point and 13 of the last 14. This season they have averaged 48 points per game while holding opponents to just 42. It’s a stat that shows both why the team has won so much, but also that the competition isn’t very far behind.
Flowery Branch did avenge last year’s title game loss, defeating Clarke Central 50-46 to even the season series.
If the seedings hold in the upcoming region tournament, this year’s title opponent would be South No. 1 Rockdale County (20-5, 7-1). But Flowery Branch proved last year that the seedings don’t always hold, which is why Hall and her squad aren’t overlooking the tall, athletic Lady Patriots.
“There are no guarantees. We have to show up to play or we’re going to be sitting at home, and our girls understand that,” Hall said. “I told them to think about last year and the people that you beat, you don’t want to be one of those teams.”
Zac Taylor is a sports writer for The Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.