ALBANY -- Go ahead Westover, go ahead and take a deep breath, taste it and savor it. The air up here has never been so clean and crisp and felt like this. It's never been this sweet.
The Sweet 16 has never been like this.
"Now we can breathe,'' said Westover's only senior Latisha Williams, after Westover beat Westside, Macon, 48-36, on Tuesday in the Sweet 16 round of the GHSA Class AAA state playoffs.
But the Lady Patriots didn't just beat Westside, they climbed a mountain -- albeit psychological or just a mountain filled with bad luck and bad news -- to win the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
The Westover kids said this week they had to hold their breath to get past this round, and Super 6er Ieshia Young put it best when she said, "We're waiting to exhale.''
Go ahead -- breathe easy, Westover.
"We just had to win this time,'' said fellow Super 6er DyTiesha Dunson, who might not have had the highest-scoring game of her career, but arguably the game of her life. "You could say that. Because this game was so important. This is the round we could never get past and now we are past it. The journey begins now.''
Dunson and Co.'s journey is the one to a possible state title.
The Lady Patriots (25-4) are in the Elite 8, just one win away from the Final Four in Macon, and three wins away from a state title.
"That's what we want, to win state,'' said Dunson, who scored 18 points, grabbed seven rebounds, made four steals, handed out five assists and ran the floor and the offense all night for Westover.
The next step is at 4 p.m. Saturday at Columbus State, where Westover meets Region 1-AAA rival Crisp County, a team the Lady Patriots have beaten three times already this season, including in the semifinals of the region tournament. Crisp, the No. 3 seed out of the region, upset No. 1-seeded Rutland on Tuesday to set up the fourth showdown.
"It's hard to beat a team four times,'' said Westover coach Lewis Smith, who couldn't have been happier after his kids nixed the second-round jinx.
It wasn't easy. Westover had to overcome the jinx and a much taller Westside team that outrebounded Westover, 35-20, and shot 28 free throws to Westover's 13.
Westside's Tommitrise Collins, a 6-foot-2 junior, blocked seven shots and pulled down 11 rebounds to go with her 10 points. Destiny Thomas led the Lady Seminoles with 13 points.
"She's 6-2,'' Smith said of Collins. "But she looks a lot taller.''
The Lady Patriots were looking up all night, but their defense also created havoc all night, forcing 20 turnovers, which allowed them to offset some of the height problems Westside presented.
"We got too excited,'' Westside coach Deb Baber said. "But that team will do that to you. They play fast and try to make you play fast. But we lost the game because we missed 13 free throws. That was the difference in the game.''
Westover, which took only 13 free throws, was hot early and made 13 of 24 first-half shots, including five in a row in the second quarter that saw 3s rained down by Kahler Fletcher and Super 6er Young. They both finished with seven points, and Cessily Colwell also scored seven.
Dunson, who did a little of everything, hit a spinning backdoor drive to give Westover a 27-10 lead and followed that play with a turnaround jumper to lift Westover to its biggest lead of the game, 29-10, with 2:30 left to play in the half. Westside (20-9), which had upset the state's 10th ranked team in Drew last week in the first round, never got closer than 11 points the rest of the way.
"It felt great to get that big lead,'' Dunson said. "Coach is always telling me that I'm the one who has to step up, and when it comes down to it I'm the one the team looks to. I was feeling it. From the start of the game, I was feeling like I would have an amazing game and that my team would have an amazing game.''
The celebration afterward was just about as amazing as they stormed the court and danced and hugged and embraced the moment.
"It feels so good,'' Dunson said. "It feels better than I thought it would. We're finally past the second round. The journey begins ..."