Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

ALBANY -- It's Westover's biggest nightmare.

The team's worst fear.

It's not a player, not a team, not even a bitter rivalry that haunts Westover's girls basketball team. It's a round -- a round in the state playoffs. Honest.

"There's nothing sweet about the Sweet 16,'' said Westover coach Lewis Smith, whose teams haven't won in the Sweet 16 round of the playoffs since 2004.

That could end tonight.

The Herald No. 1 Lady Patriots face Westside, Macon at 6 p.m.

today at home in the second round, where they will also face their personal nemesis -- Round Two.

"We just need to get past this second round,'' said Herald Super 6er Ieshia Young, a junior and three year starter. "Then we can exhale.''

She means it.

"We will be holding our breath until this game, then after we win it then we can exhale,'' she said. "Then we can relax, and then we can go on and win state.''

Sounds strange, but Westover's kids believe that.

"This is the round we just can't get over,'' said Super 6er DyTiesha Dunson. "Once we get past this round, then the journey begins. It's bittersweet. I'm happy to be here (in the playoffs), but I just really want to get past this round.''

The Lady Patriots lost to

Northside, Columbus, 55-51, last year in the this round, then watched LaGrange -- a team Westover had handled easily during the regular season -- beat Northside in the Elite 8 round and advance to the Final Four. The feeling at Westover last season was if the Lady Pats had just gotten by Northside there would be no stopping them.

That feeling hasn't changed.

"We've been thinking about that second-round loss during the summer workouts, running steps at Hugh Mills (Stadium) and during every practice,'' Dunson said. "We felt we should have gone to state last year, and our goal is to win state this year. When we break our huddle we say: '1-2-3 State!' And we've been saying that since last summer. We just need to get past this round.''

They will carry all that and more into tonight's game. After practice Monday, players said they could still feel last year's loss.

"I remember crying after the game, and I remember crying in the parking lot the next day,'' Westover starting forward Cessily Colwell said. "The next day after that game, there was no basketball practice. We all stood in the parking lot outside the gym, and we just started crying.''

Westside, Macon could present another mountain for Westover. The Lady Seminoles (20-8) were the fourth seed coming out of Region 2-AAA, but they lost by two points in the semifinals and finals of their region tournament, and then knocked off No. 1 seed Drew, 61-51, on the road in the first round of the state playoffs. Drew was ranked No. 10 in the state at the time. So there is no fear at Westside.

"They went to the Class AAAA playoffs every year and this year they dropped down to Class AAA, so that's a real good program,'' Smith said. "That's a school that usually makes a deep run in the state playoffs. They have a winning tradition. They're taller than us. About the only good thing about playing them is that we're at home.''

Westover (24-4) would have been on the road had Drew beaten Westside, because the Lady Patriots are only a No. 2 seed this year after being upset in the Region 1-AAA final by Dougherty, which then fell to Butler in the opening round of the playoffs.

"That loss in the region final was a blessing in disguise,'' Dunson said. "It helped us. It woke us up. We were never a big-headed team, but we started thinking we were invincible and taking people lightly.''

Young agreed.

"It just made us refocus,'' she said. "It opened our eyes again and got us back on track. When we break our huddle we never shout, '1-2-3 region champs!' We shout, '1-2-3, state!'

"That's what we want, to win -- state. And we need to get past this round to do it.''

Every player feels this year's team is better than last year's. Why not? Four starters returned and Smith has used young players such as Shanteria Williams, a sophomore who has emerged as a big rebounder, to fill in the gaps. Smith plays four sophomores and four freshmen to go along with his four juniors -- Dunson, Young, Colwell and Kahler Fletcher.

Fletcher is as dangerous as anyone on the court, because she can nail the 3 and also get rebounds.

"I think we're better this year,'' Fletcher said Monday. "We're more mature, and we're a year older.''

A year of waiting for one night -- tonight and this game.

"This has been our stumbling block,'' Smith said. "Every year since 2004, we get right here and lose.''

It couldn't be much bigger.

"This game is like a state championship game,'' Dunson said. "It is almost as big, because we can't win the state championship without winning this game. We just have to win this round.''