GHSA CLASS AAAA GIRLS STATE TOURNAMENT: Lady Patriots on verge of Final 4

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

COLUMBUS -- If you would have told anyone at Westover at the beginning of the season that their girls basketball team would have to play Crisp County four times, no one would have believed it.

"I would have said, 'Is that even possible? How can that even happen,' " Westover Super 6er DyTiesha Dunson said after practice Thursday.

Well, believe it.

It not only happened, but the fourth showdown is for a trip to the Class AAA Final Four for either Crisp or Westover's girls, who have somehow circled the State Tournament bracket and found themselves facing each other at 4 p.m. today at Columbus State in the Elite 8 round.

Whether it's good news or bad news, Westover has beaten Crisp three times, and that's what The Herald No. 1 Lady Patriots will take into this game. It may or may not be an advantage.

Minutes after Westover beat Westside, Macon, 48-36, on Tuesday to advance to the Elite 8 for the first time since 2004, coach Lewis Smith delivered a message.

"We're playing Crisp,'' he said. "And you are going to have to play them like you have never played them before.''

He meant it. Smith is worried sick about Crisp's powerhouse center, Nasheema Oliver, a 6-foot-3 freshman who has gotten better and better and is the biggest (no pun intended) reason the Lady Cougars (12-14) are where they are today.

After losing to Westover in the Region 1-AAA semifinals, Crisp pulled off an upset in the consolation round by beaten Herald No. 3 Americus-Sumter to enter the state tournament as a No. 3 seed. They just kept going, landing in the Elite 8 after beating No. 1 seed Rutland, 67-46, in a 21-point rout on Tuesday.

"I'm not happy about playing them. I would much rather be playing Rutland,'' Smith said. "I've been telling people about them all year. People look at Crisp's win-loss record, but forget about that record. They have put it together.

"That's a young team and they lost a lot of games at the beginning of the season, and they lost most of their games at the end of the game. That's just because they're young. They are playing great right now in the playoffs. I don't care anything about their record.''

Neither does Crisp, which went from the No. 5 seed in the Region 1-AAA tournament to becoming one of the final eight teams in the state of Georgia.

"We've beaten them three times and you know they are going to want revenge,'' Dunson said. "Most teams that have won three times would dwell on that, but we can't. We have to come to play -- and play hard. They want to beat us, but we want to get to the Final Four. Our goal is the state championship.''

Smith's goal is to find a way to stop Oliver, who towers over this game.

"They have good guards and they are tall at every position," Smith said. "And they've got a girl nobody can stop. She's a strong player. She is not just big and strong, she's got great footwork and she's got the best hands of any big person I've seen. She catches everything. And she can make free throws.

"You can't stop her from what she wants to do. And there other girls are all playing better now.''

Still, Westover (25-4) believes it can win again. The Lady Patriots run and pressure the ball and live off turnovers, forcing a high-tempo that negates the fact almost all the teams they play are taller than they are.

"And we have to make shots,'' Smith said. "That's how we have been able to beat them, making our shots. (Oliver) is going to score, and we have to keep answering the call.''

Westover has players who can dominate a game like Dunson, and the Lady Patriots have something else: a deep bench. Smith has been rotating girls five at a time down the stretch and four freshmen and four sophomores all see the court, including Shantaria Williams, who has emerged as a tough inside player this season. But Williams, the daughter of Westover legend and former NBA player Dontonio Wingfield, is only 5-11.

"She's long,'' Williams said of Oliver. "She is a lot bigger, but I will try. I'll try my best to stop her.''

Smith is counting on his deep bench.

"We play a lot more people than they do,'' he said. "Our strength is our bench. We play more folks and we shoot more 3s (than Crisp).''

Kahler Fletcher is a 3-point artist. And when she has been hot this season, it seems the rest of the Patriots feed off her shooting. Westover also has Super 6er Ieshia Young and Cessiley Colwell, who can both spark the team on either end of the court. The Lady Patriots just don't have much height. Dunson, a 5-8 point guard who runs the floor and leads the team in every offensive category, as well as steals, actually leads Westover in rebounding with an average of eight a game.

The Lady Patriots haven't been to the Final Four since 2004, and seemed to have a jinx in their second-round games. That is, until Tuesday when they stormed the floor in celebration after finally clearing that huge hurdle (well, mountain).

Now they have to turn around and beat a team for the fourth time.

"I have already forgotten Tuesday,'' Dunson said. "After the celebration, that was over.''

Playing Crisp just added to the fuel, because of the frequency of facing off against the Lady Cougars.

"We have to go in like we have never played them before,'' Fletcher said. "We can't think about what has happened in the past games.''

Young said beating Crisp three times puts the heat on Westover, not Crisp.

"Obviously, they are playing pretty good basketball right now,'' Young said. "They know we have beaten them three times, but that puts the pressure on us to make something happen. We can't get it into our heads that we've beaten them three times. We've got to work harder than ever to beat them this time.

"We know they will give it all they've got. If I was Crisp County, I'd be saying: 'There's no way Westover is going to beat us four times.' So we have to be ready.''