by Christopher Lawlor
FORT MYERS, Fla. – Perfection!
To enter the GEICO High School National with an undefeated record is one thing but to emerge from the girls’ bracket with that unblemished mark puts a team in another stratosphere.
Take a bow Westlake Lady Lions of Atlanta, Georgia, you’ve earned it. Better get used to it: 2021 GEICO Nationals Champions. Westlake earned the coveted moniker for the first time in program history Saturday morning after dispatching third-seeded Paul VI (Chantilly, Va.), 70-50, at the Suncoast Credit Union Arena.
The game was decided in the second quarter when the Lady Lions were up two points (22-20) and run away from the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference powerhouse with a 19-4 tear. Make no mistake, PVI was a formidable opponent but Westlake was operating on a different level.
Westlake completed a 23-0 campaign. The Lady Lions annexed a fourth straight Georgia High School Athletic Association championship in Class AAAAAA. That in itself is an accomplishment considering the Peach State is one of the nation’s hotbeds for girls hoops. And to add the GEICO Nationals hardware along with the state title banners cements the legacy.
The Lady Lions are the big cat in Georgia’s golden age of girls basketball. They are simply the best of the best and now national champions. Coach Hilda Hankerson’s team will carry a lofty 37-game win streak into the 2021-22 season.
Four undefeated teams started in the GEICO girls’ bracket and Westlake emerged. That’s quite an accomplishment.
Westlake’s unrelentless attack featured a triumvirate of Power-5 players, accounting for 59 of 70 points.
Raven Johnson, a South Carolina recruit, had 17 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and two steals.
Latson, who netted 57 points over two days, finished with a game-high 31 points (9 of 16 shooting), three rebounds and three steals. Brianna Turnage posted a double-double with 11 points, 11 rebounds and blocked seven shots.
Johnson’s prep career has one last chapter. She named a McDonald’s All American but the game was canceled over coronavirus concerns. However, she’s the lone girl selected to the Iverson Classic, a senior all-star game, played May 6-7 in Bartlett, Tenn. She’s on the same team (Team Loyalty) as GEICO boys’ participant TyTy Washington of AZ Compass Prep (Chandler, Ariz.).
Junior forward Jaelyn Talley totaled 17 points and six rebounds, Duke-bound Lee Volker scored 10 points and Bella Perkins added 14. Perkins, an unsigned senior, surely opened eyes with her two-game performance at GEICO.
The Panthers finished a truncated season with a sparkling 11-1 record.
Latson was the GEICO Most Valuable. She was joined on the all-tournament by teammate Johnson. Perkins and Talley were added from Paul VI and Fremont’s Maggie Mendelson rounded out the elite team.
With PVI clinging to hope for a miracle comeback, Latson squashed that notion, draining a corner 3-pointer to beat the third-quarter buzzer for a comfortable 52-37 lead. PVI closed within 10 and 12 points on a few occasions. Sensing the Panthers within touching distance, Westlake never stopped running, defending, rebounding, and scoring in gobs.
The Lady Lions took charge in the second quarter for a 37-22 halftime edge. The fun, entertaining game that defined the first quarter shifted to a one-sided affair. The Lady Lions’ trio of Johnson (11 points), Turnage (11) and Latson (13) teamed for 35 of their 37 points. Westlake owned the boards with a plus-10 edge (20-10) and up-tempo attack smothered PVI.
Talley had seven points and Volker six at the break.
PVI’s accuracy abandoned them in the second, missing 8 of their first 10 shots and the Lady Lions launched a 15-4 run in six minutes for a 33-22 lead.
Turnage, who scored five in the semifinals, scored nine in the first, when the Lady Lions led 20-18. Talley (seven) and Perkins (five) teamed for 12 points for PVI. The teams shot a combined 16 of 26 for an entertaining start.
Both teams hit the floor with championship thoughts dancing in their eyes. The Panther only missed one of their first six shots and Westlake made 4 of 7 shots. PVI led 12-11 as Talley scored four points after netting 17 in the semifinals. Latson had six in the opening three minutes. –story written by Christopher Lawlor