Maurice Dixon

@WriturRece |

MACON (GA) – The Westlake Lady Lions came into the championship game as the favorites, established themselves as the favorites immediately after the opening tip and went on to claim their second straight state title.

Lydia Freeman and Raven Johnson both scored 16 points and Brianna Turnage added 14 as Westlake led from start to finish in a 60-53 victory over Collins Hill in the 2019 GHSA Class 7-A championship game at the Macon Centreplex on March 9.

“It’s unbelievable and it feels good but at the same time last year I didn’t get a lot of playing time so this win is very special to me because I’m a first-time starter and this is my first time getting big minutes,” said Freeman, who also grabbed nine rebounds and blocked two shots. “The first time was awesome but this time it’s amazing.”

“It’s a magnificent feeling. The girls played a great game tonight,” Westlake coach Hilda Hankerson said. “We knew we had the talent to do it. If you would have asked me during the season if we would’ve been undefeated, I would have bet against myself but I did feel like we could compete and be in this position to win. But to do it in the manner that we did it, I’m betting against me in Vegas. This is an unbelievable feat and it’s the first time in the history of Westlake girls’ basketball so we’re just excited and overjoyed especially with the team being as young as they are.”

On their way to a 30-0 conclusion to the season, the Lady Lions didn’t dominate the Lady Eagles in the same manner as their previous four postseason opponents but the game was trending that way early.

Freeman opened the scoring with back-to-back layups, then Johnson added a layin and Olympia Chaney capped the 8-0 start with a layup before Collins Hill called timeout three minutes into the game. Westlake ended the quarter ahead by nine and Johnson and Turnage handled most of the scoring in the second period, leading to a 32-21 advantage at the half.

In the third quarter, Westlake started the frame in control but Javyn Nicholson (17 points, 15 rebounds, three steals) got things going on the offensive end to spark an 11-0 run for a 40-38 score with 1:10 left in the frame.

Despite losing senior Jordan Releford (seven points) to a serious knee injury before the shift in momentum, Collins Hill also forced the Lady Lions into a number of bad decisions with a half-court trap during that stretch.

But Johnson’s layup put a halt to the scoring run and Westlake entered the final period ahead by four. Then in the fourth, the Lady Lions handled the traps better and Freeman scored three straight layups to keep Collins Hill (30-2) in the rear and counter Bria Harmon’s (13 points) stretch of baskets.

“I stayed in the gym four days a week with [Lydia] for two years straight,” Hankerson said. “She came to me as an empty slate in the ninth grade and she said ‘they say I should play this game. I said they are right.’ The first year she played jayvee and didn’t even understand the rules of basketball–nothing. We taught her how to run, catch, how to hold the ball, how to keep it up. When you get a person like that who comes to you as a blank slate and wants it, and she goes from nothing to playing in the All-Star game with the juniors this year, it makes me so proud of her I can hardly see straight.”

Johnson and Turnage both sank a pair of free throws to push the margin back to nine with over three minutes remaining and Westlake’s bid for a repeat was never threatened from there.

“Collins Hill came hard,” Johnson said. “They had heart. They were seniors and I know they wanted it but we had to get it.”

Of the eight players who logged minutes in the title game for Westlake, only one of them was a senior (Nicole Robinson).

“This [title] wasn’t as stressful because last year’s was the first and with it being the first you want to make sure you complete the journey,” Hankerson said. “This one was a lot more fun because the girls are so youthful and they are going to keep you on your toes. Even though they didn’t have any senior leadership, they still believed they could do it.”