Tift County Lady Devils head coach Julie Conner could not have asked for a better birthday gift. Her squad not only defeated the Newton Lady Rams, 55-38, they advanced to their first quarterfinals since 1995. Their next round game will be another home game, against North Cobb, a 70-37 winner over Rockdale County Saturday night.
It was a quick start for Tift County. Ninety seconds into the game, Alexis Johnson was fouled on a made basket and made the free throw and the Lady Devils were off. Newton would be held scoreless for the first three minutes, spotting the host team a 6-0 lead. They would rally to tie it within a minute when Sonia Forney's bucket knotted it at six. Tift would jump back out to a five-point lead, 13-8. The Lady Rams would get within one near the end of the quarter, but Brakia Bateman made it a two-point game, 14-12 at the end of the first.
It would be Newton who started the second quarter with a spark. They would see their only lead of the game, 16-14 at 5:54. Tift tied it 15 seconds later. The Lady Rams had another chance to be on top, but missed a pair of free throws and the Lady Devils would develop other plans. A pair of treys by Dee Dee DeShazer and Dail Adaway provided much of the juice during the run, which extended to 15-0 and five minutes of zero offense from Newton until a free throw with 41 seconds in the period broke their cold streak. It would be the last points of the half and the Lady Devils went to their lockerrom with a 29-17 advantage.
The third frame's early seconds indicated a runaway for Tift as DeShazer's three pushed it to a 15-point lead. Newton finally snapped back into action and the lead was sawed in half midway through the quarter, 32-24. DeShazer then scored and the game again belonged to the Lady Devils. It was 39-29 going into the fourth and the long distance shots for Newton were refusing to fall.
Electing to go into a slowdown game in the fourth, Conner's squad knocked large chunks off the clock on every possession, and Newton was forced to start fouling. Unlike Wednesday when the free throws were not dropping, the Lady Devils had a much more rewarding night from the charity stripe, finishing 22-30 on the evening. DeShazer would nail two more with 49 seconds left as the final icing on the cake and substitutes finished out the remainder of the game. The 55-38 final improved their record to 23-6 and featured key nights from many players. DeShazer finished with 19 points to lead all scorers and DeJai Jordan added 10. Adaway had seven, all in the second quarter. Precious Price led Newton with 14.
In a game that featured a turnaway crowd and a Harlem Shake halftime dance from students, the main attraction was the air show provided by the Tift County Blue Devils gave them an insurmountable early lead on their way to a 100-83 win over the Westlake Lions. The Devils will play a home game in the quarterfinals against North Cobb, an 80-76 winner over Morrow at a time yet to be determined.
Any nervousness the Devils might have had playing against the team that eliminated them in the first round in 2012 were ended early. Head coach Dr. Eric Holland said seeing the fans had a big impact. “We’re at home, we see the crowd and everyone was excited,” he said.
For as excited as Tift was going in, Westlake would draw first blood. Their advantage would last all of 1:30. Tadric Jackson tied the game at two. Then D.J. Bryant nailed a three. Then it was Brannen Greene. Westlake scored to make it 9-4, but then the Devils were off again. Five minutes into the game they had 23 points, had scored on multiple dunks and a stunned Westlake barely had a moment to collect their thoughts before the onslaught started back up again. At the end of the first quarter Tift had 36, Jackson 15 and Westlake 12.
The Lions were able to find their own gear in the second. Tony Bagtas scored 12 of their 18 in the quarter, most on layups as the Devils adjusted their gameplan to battle their opponents’ quick hands. Westlake’s discovery of their offense was not enough to keep up. Tift had them doubled, 46-23 midway through the frame. Even when the buzzer sounded to end the half, the Blue Devils’ offense was still churning as Bryant was fouled while attempting a shot with 0.3 on the clock. He made all three free throws and they were already over the half-century mark, 56-30.
Two minutes into the third, the lead jumped to 30, 64-34, after Jackson was fouled on a made basket and made the bonus. It would reach 32 in the quarter before Westlake started chipping away. Greene would be called for a technical foul at 1:20 and Jackson would be injured a minute later and when Andre Elam wrapped up the scoring in the period, it was 76-49.
Jackson returned early in the fourth, but even his wizardry was unable to keep the Lions out of the basket. When Greene fouled out at 4:07, they had cut it to a 20-point game, 86-66, and when Ali Vaughn was called for his fifth at 2:00, it was a 13-point game. It was too late for Westlake, though, and as the seconds began ticking down and the home team’s point total began rising again via the foul stripe, scoreboard watching became popular.
When Jackson’s pair of free throws made it 99-78, fans began chanting, “one more point.” They were rewarded a few seconds later when Gerald Pledger was fouled and made the first of his shots with 47 seconds remaining. Elam would score another basket to finish the game, a 100-83 finish.
Bagtas’ performance was tops for both sides. He had 34 points on the night and was one of four in double digits for the Lions. The others were Elam (17), Kejuan Johnson (12), Raymond Saunders (10) and Tyler Williams (10).
Tift, who improves to 25-4, hit the century mark for the first time this season and also had several players with big nights. Jackson led with 27, Greene had 23, Vaughn, 19, and Bryant and Donell Tuff each had 13.
Though packed nearly to the rafters, some fans had to be turned away, according to athletic director Rusty Smith. Holland said he had been told that about 400 were unable to get in. He said he and Smith were in discussions about possible arrangements to expand the seating capacity for the quarterfinals against the North Cobb Warriors, an evening that might turn into a doubleheader. In girls’ action Saturday, the Lady Warriors blew out Rockdale County, 70-37.