AMERICUS -- They knew.
Just like they knew their first names, or what day Christmas falls on, every girl on the Americus-Sumter basketball knew what Tuesday meant in the Region 1-AAA race.
"We knew it was No. 1 and No. 2. We knew what this game meant,'' said Kayla Bowens, a sophomore who looked like she had been in a 100 varsity games before. She looked like it, played like it and -- in the end -- felt like it when she nailed two free throws with 8.6 seconds left to help lift Americus-Sumter to a 45-42 win against Westover.
She didn't just lift the Lady Panthers to their biggest win of the year, she carried them over Westover and right to the front of the Region 1-AAA charts, where everyone in Americus knows the Lady Panthers are now No. 1.
They're 5-1 in the region, and Westover is 4-1, but the first tiebreaker is head-to-head competition, and that was decided in the final seconds on Tuesday night when the Lady Panthers, who led most of the game, held off a furious rally by Westover, which made three steals and turned them into six points in a span of less than 20 seconds to close to 42-40 with 10.7 seconds remaining.
But Cessily Colwell missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw before sinking the last one to close to 42-41, and Bowens connected at the other end to all but end it.
"When I shot the first (free throw) I just was hoping someone was over the line so I would get that shot back," said Colwell, who returned from a knee injury and played with a brace all night but left the gym with ice packed on her leg. "I knew I had to make the second one. But then (they made free throws).
"It was a very tough loss. I just should have taken more time before I shot it.''
Nothing was easy for Bowens at the other end.
"I was nervous, very nervous, whoooooooooo,'' she said, shaking her head a bit. "We wanted that No. 1 spot. We knew we needed to play hard and play smart. We really wanted it.''
Bowens finished with 12 points and Ashley Howard dropped in 12 to lead the Lady Panthers. Herald Super 6er Jayme Gilbert scored 11 points, and Diamond Denmark added seven points and grabbed 10 rebounds as Americus held the edge on the glass -- and on the floor, where the Lady Panthers forced 24 turnovers.
Herald No. 1 Westover (13-3) hasn't been able to handle the ball well since Super 6er DyTiesha Dunson suffered a knee injury Saturday, and has lost two games in a row without her in the lineup.
"We really miss her a lot,'' said Colwell, who along with Super 6er Ieshia Young led Westover with 13 points. "It's a test for us to play without her. We need to come together as a team and work a little harder.''
Dunson, who leads Westover in scoring, assists, rebounds and is also the floor leader, is scheduled to see a doctor today, but Lady Panther coach Lewis Smith said Tuesday his team is just going to have to learn to play without their star.
Dunson's absence didn't take anything away from Americus' victory, and Westover which made only 9 of 19 free throws, could have won without Dunson. In the end, it means Americus was able to win the must-win game.
"Yeah, it was a big game, a big win,'' said Americus-Sumter coach Evelyn Wright, who was proud of her kids, and especially proud of the way they handled the pressure and the free throw line, where they set a school record, hitting 14 of 19 (73 percent) on a night when every one of them meant just that much more. "Free throws win games, Free throws and defense. That was the difference in the game. It was a big game and the girls were a little nervous because they knew Westover was No. 1 in the region. But they played good defense. You can't buy hustle. They hustled and played defense. We were all over the place.''
Bowens is Wright's granddaughter, and picked a good night to step up for her coach and grandmother. Gilbert, who has led the Lady Panthers all year, had an off night and made only 2 out of 8 3-point shots.
"I told them that on any night we've got three or four people who can step up,'' Wright said.
They did. And now the Lady Panthers, who have won six in a row, have stepped up to the top with less than a month left to play.
The win also will probably move Americus-Sumter to the top spot in The Herald's Top 5 poll next week. The Lady Panthers (13-2 and 5-1 in the region) had been sitting behind Westover, which has been No. 1 since the preseason. But Americus travels to play Monroe on Friday in another big region game, and the entire Monroe girls team showed up Tuesday to watch the game -- just to do a little scouting.
"We've just got to keep going,'' Bowens began, "and just keep playing hard.''
WESTOVER BOYS 54, AMERICUS-SUMTER 51:
Westover bounced back from a brutal weekend in which The Herald No. 4 Patriots lost to both Herald No. 1 Monroe and Herald No. 2 Terrell County, and appeared ready to blow Americus right off its own court on Tuesday, before hanging on to get a three-point win.
The Patriots led, 33-9, at halftime, but Americus-Sumter guard Lakista McCuller tossed the Panthers on his back and put on a show in the second half, hitting 6-of-9 three-pointers to lead the comeback. He finished the night with a school-record 8 3-pointers and 28 points.
At one point in the game, McCuller had scored 25 of Americus' 28 points, before Xaiver Willis, who scored all nine of his points in the fourth quarter, and Javaris Hooks, who hit two fourth-quarter 3s and finished with 10 points, starting scoring as well.
"He got on a roll,'' said Americus-Sumter coach Michael Coley, whose team fell to 5-10 this season. "We talked at halftime about coming out in the second half and playing with pride. Westover is a great team and they forced us into a lot of turnovers in the first half. But we played a lot better in the second half, and McCuller was just knocking down one shot after another.''
Americus never got closer than the final score as Westover did enough to hold back the charge.
"We came out lackadaisical in the second half,'' Westover coach Dallis Smith said. "Nobody was blocking out and we stopped doing the little things. Some people get content. You can't do that. Hopefully, we can learn from it.''
That's exactly how Super 6er Malcolm Sapp felt. He led Westover with 18 points while playing only about three quarters of the game.
"It's a lesson,'' Sapp said. "We let up in the second half, and you can't do that. I was shocked when I looked up and saw the lead had been cut to five points.
"They came back and (McCuller) got hot and was hitting everything. He looked like me when I get hot like that.''
Westover is now 11-6, but is still 4-1 in the Region 1-AAA race even after the tough stretch.
"We needed to get the win. We're still No. 1 in the region,'' said Smith, who played a lot of combinations on Tuesday, including starting Trent Brown and Shernard Childs, his two wide-body big men. "We wanted to take a look at some people and I thought they (Brown and Childs) did a good job in the first half. Maybe this will help us. You need to get scared, and face tough situations.''