ALBANY -- Lewis Smith didn't have the answer.
He wishes he did.
He would bottle it, save it and pour it on the court every time his Westover Lady Patriots stepped on to it.
"I don't know,'' said Smith, who couldn't explain why his No. 1 Lady Patriots jumped out to a 19-0 lead against Herald No. 2 Americus-Sumter in the biggest regular-season game of the season. "If I knew, we would do it all the time.''
That Mercury-hot start helped lift Westover to a 74-58 win Friday night at Westover, where the Lady Patriots nailed down the top seed in next week's Region 1-AAA tournament with the victory. Americus-Sumter, which beat Westover earlier this season, will be the No. 2 team, and the two powers could meet again next week for the title.
"If we do, then we just need to do what we did (Friday night),'' said Westover's Kahler Fletcher, who busted three 3-pointers and scored 11 of Westover first 22 points, finishing with 16.
"We just jumped on them,'' she said. "We looked for the open person, and worked the ball to get some good looks and made good shots.''
That was the secret to Westover's hot start. But Americus-Sumter made an inspiring comeback, led by Herald Super 6er Jayme Gilbert, who hit five 3-pointers and finished the night with 32 points. The Lady Panthers closed the gap to just five points at 46-41 with 1:47 left in the third, but Westover (21-3 and 11-1 in the region) regained its composure and raced off to the win.
"We got off to a great start and we were able to hang on,'' Smith said. "They have a great team. You knew they weren't going to lay down.''
Gilbert did everything she could to bring Americus-Sumter back, but Westover finished the game with an 18-10 run in the final six minutes.
"I think when we cut it to five points we got a little too anxious,'' Gilbert said. "We started playing like we had already taken the lead, and we hadn't."
Gilbert ignited the comeback with a 12-point second quarter, scoring the final seven points of the half, including five in the final 45 seconds as she nailed a 3 and a drive to close the gap to 40-31.
She hit back-to-back 3s to start the second half, but Fletcher also busted a 3 to keep the lead at 46-37. Then Gilbert hit Kayla Bowens with a nice pass on a break to close to 46-39 before Diamond Denmark hit a jumper to close to 46-41.
But Westover's DyTiesha Dunson, a Herald Super 6er herself who was out with a knee injury on Jan. 18 when Americus-Sumter beat Westover, 45-42, took over for the Lady Patriots. Dunson hit only a 3 in Westover's 26-point first quarter, but finished with 19 points and eight assists, mostly down the stretch as she put the game in Westover's hands, either driving for a basket or dishing the ball off creating easy shots for her teammates. She scored eight points and handed out three assists over the final six minutes to put the game away.
Shanteria Williams, who had a big night under the boards with 13 rebounds, was on the other end of four of Dunson's eight assists and finished with 15 points. Fletcher, who sat out the entire second quarter with two fouls, finished with 16 points and seven rebounds.
Bowens scored 14 for Americus-Sumter and Denmark finished with eight, but the Lady Panthers made a statement.
"They played their hearts out. They never quit,'' Americus-Sumter coach Evelyn Wright said. "They played a great comeback game. We got it down to five points, but I think we were out of gas in the fourth quarter. We didn't take care of our assignments in the fourth quarter and we gave them too many easy baskets when they spread the floor.''
Wright's team is 18-5 and 9-3 in the region, and plays Terrell County tonight in a non-region game before returning to Westover on Thursday for the region semifinals. There's a good chance the Lady Panthers could meet Westover for the title.
"They wanted revenge because we beat them before,'' Wright said. "Next time, we will have a chance to come back and get revenge.''
Gilbert just wants a fresh start.
"I don't want another comeback game,'' she said. "Next time I want to be the ones with the fast start.''
WESTOVER BOYS 60, AMERICUS-SUMTER 38:
Welcome to the Boston Garden.
Westover's Patriots might as well have hung that sign up after running by Americus-Sumter to nail down not only the top seed in the Region 1-AAA tournament, but to put the semifinals and finals in the Westover gym.
"There's no place like home,'' said Westover principal William Chunn, whose school won the right to host the tournament because the boys' regular-season champion determined the site.
Westover (16-9) might have lost more games than it was used to along the way but the Patriots went 10-2 in the region, edging Herald No. 1 Monroe (9-3 in the region) for the top seed. Had Westover lost to Americus-Sumter (2-10 in the region and 7-16 overall) then Monroe would have been the host team and the finals might have been played at the Albany Civic Center.
But Westover wants the home court.
"They earned it,'' Chunn said. "We've been a team player and played four games in the Civic Center, and three of those were our home games. Our kids earned the right to play at home. The Civic Center is nice, but there's no place like home.''
That's what Friday's game was really all about -- Westover landing the home court advantage next week.
"It's real important,'' said Westover coach Dallis Smith, whose team split with Monroe and could face the Tornadoes in a third game for the region title. There were some Monroe players at the game, and they probably wanted to slip into a blue Americus-Sumter jersey to help the Panthers.
The Panthers opened the game looking ready to pull off the upset. Lakista McCuller, who hit eight 3s when Westover beat Americus-Sumter, 54-51, earlier this year hit two 3s in the opening minutes to lift the Panthers to an 8-7 lead.
That was the last time Americus-Sumter led. Westover ended the quarter with a 10-0 run and when the Panthers went cold in the second quarter, going 2 for 11 after missing their first seven shots, Westover, which forced 14 first-half turnovers, took over and led 29-12 at halftime.
"We just couldn't buy a basket,'' said Americus-Sumter coach Michael Coley, whose team will play at Worth County on Monday in the play-in game to start the Region 1-AAA tournament. "And Trent Brown killed us on the boards.''
Westover got a big night from Brown, a 6-foot-7, 295-pound force on the floor who has improved all season on the court. Brown came off the bench and scored 12 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and made two steals.
"I would say he's improved 60 to 70 percent from the beginning of the year,'' Smith said. "He did a good job on the boards. He gets in there and grabs the rebound. He goes after it. And he did a good job (scoring) down in there.''
Brown said he had lost 15 pounds during basketball season, and he is feeling the game more and more every night.
"We wanted to win this game to get the No. 1 seed,'' Brown said. "There's nothing like having the home court advantage. And I saw that I had to pick up the slack.''
He did. Westover Super 6er Malcolm Sapp didn't score a point in the first half before finishing with 11, and Smith was upset with the effort of a couple of his players early.
"We started off shaky,'' Smith said. "A couple of players didn't go that hard. Sometimes you can be a little overconfident. We had them down by 20 or 30 last time and beat them by only three. They're scrappy, and I told our kids a team like that is scary because they have nothing to lose. We had a lot to play for. It means a lot to be at home. It's a big deal.''
Dequan Green led Westover with 13 points and Josh Black (8 points) and Joseph Harrell (7 points, 8 rebounds and 2 blocks) had their moments. McCuller led Americus-Sumter with 12 points and Xaiver Willis scored nine.
The first two rounds of the Region 3-AAA tournament will be played at home courts. Dougherty (6-6), which beat Worth, 69-51, on Friday night to nail down the No. 3 seed, will be at home on Tuesday against the Americus-Worth play-in winner.
Cairo, which beat Crisp County on Friday night to win the fourth seed, will be at home against Crisp on Tuesday. The survivors will play Thursday at Westover, where Monroe might meet Dougherty for the third time this season in the opener, and Westover will play the winner of the Cairo-Crisp game on Thursday.