BUFORD — For the second year in a row, Cherokee’s season ended just short of playing for a state championship.
Westlake defeated Cherokee 62-33 at Buford City Arena on Saturday afternoon, ending the Lady Warriors’ season in the AAAAAAA semifinals. The Lady Lions (29-2) were dominant and after a tight first quarter asserted themselves in every aspect.
It was the 14th consecutive win for Westlake who moved on to face the winner of Campbell and Collins Hill in next Saturday’s state championship in Macon. The loss snapped Cherokee’s 15-game winning streak and ended one of the best four-year runs in the program’s recent history.
“It’s hard when only one team gets to end on a win,” Cherokee coach Matt Cates said. “It’s tough to swallow and this game won’t define our group. Basketball is what they do, it’s not who they are and I want them to know that.”
Despite Westlake crashing the offensive glass early and often, the Lady Warriors (28-3) came out the agressor in the first quarter. Cherokee senior Sydne Watts finished a 3-point play off a long outlet pass from junior Kate Johnson and senior Ashlyn Andrus followed shortly thereafter with consecutive baskets of her own. Cherokee led 9-6 but Westlake responded with baskets from junior Raven Johnsonn and senior Brianna Turnage and took a 10-9 lead into the second quarter.
Kate Johnson scored with an efficient post move to open the second quarter but Raven Johnson knocked down a pair of free throws immediately after. Cherokee would never again hold the lead.
“They were really fast and once they made a run I guess we just broke down,” Andrus said. “It was just tough to keep coming back.”
Using an explosive offensive transition that featured Carlyse Hooks, Raven Johnson, Latson, the Lady Lions outscored Cherokee 21-6 in the second quarter. When the Lady Lions didn’t score in transition, they found points off offensive rebounds with size and length at seemingly every position. Latson finished with a game-high 17 points while Raven Johnson finished with 16 points, six rebounds and four assists. Hooks finished with 13 points.
Westlake took a 31-17 lead into halftime and opened the third quarter on a 9-0 run forcing Cates to call a timeout. Westlake’s defense repeatedly forced turnovers in the second and third quarters as the Lady Warriors found offense difficult to come by. Westlake led 49-24 at the start of the fourth.
Westlake held Cherokee to without a player in double digits scoring, with Kate Johnson finishing as the team leader with nine points. Andrus finished with eight and Watts finished six.
With two minutes left to play, and Cherokee trailing 60-29, Cates began to sub out his starters. The large contingent of Cherokee fans in attendance applauded the players and after the game Cates recalled the accomplishments of his six seniors.
“It’s a group of seniors who won 100 games, four region championships, two Final Fours and three Elite Eights,” Cates said. “It’s tough to get kids to buy in when there’s a chance you’ll get your heart broken. There’s only one team who gets to go out celebrating but this is a great group. I’ve never had a class like this. It took 20 years to get a senior class like this.”
For the players on the court, the support from the Cherokee community — even in defeat — was not only noticed but appreciated deeply.
“This year I think people finally realized how good we were,” Andrus said. “I saw the crowd coming in during warmups and thought ‘wow, that’s a lot of supporters.’ I love it and we definitely noticed the difference this year.”
“I’m just going to remember all the people and my teammates. We’ve all played together since we were in sixth grade and it’s been great to go on this journey with them.”