by Christopher Lawlor
FORT MYERS, Fla. – Here’s a trick question: Raven Johnson or Taniya Latson?
Well, it’s who you choose or like picking you poison. Either way, you lose. With the Westlake (Atlanta, Ga.) backcourt operating on high octane it severely limits the opposition. Do you think fourth-seeded Fremont (Plain City, Utah) has seen this athleticism and quickness anywhere in Utah? Likely not.
The Westlake guard tandem proved lethal, again, combining for 51, 14 rebounds and 13 assists Friday afternoon in a 64-54 win over the Silverwolves in the GEICO High School Nationals girls’ semifinal at Suncoast Credit Union Arena.
Fremont could not handle Westlake’s relentless, in-your-face pressure defense that forced a whopping 20 turnovers that created 30 points. The Lady Lions allowed Fremont to creep back early in the fourth quarter within one point at 49-48 but in a flash Latson and Johnson scored transition baskets to give the Atlanta powerhouse some space. When Latson’s steal and layup made it 57-50 with 2:15 left, the Silverwolves knew it was over.
Johnson, a national player of the year candidate and McDonald’s All American, orchestrated the offense and punctuated the defense with sticky fingers. She totaled 25 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists and seven steals, just missing on a rare triple double. Her running mate, Latson, tossed in a game-high 26 points with five rebound, four assists and four steals. Virginia Tech-bound Brianna Turnage added five points and cleared 10 boards.
At 6-5, Maggie Mendelson, a two-sport college hopeful (volleyball too), produced 23 points (10 of 16 shooting), six rebounds, two steals and two blocked shot. She dominated the post and is one of the nation’s top players from the Class of 2023. BYU-bound closed out a brilliant career with a double-double, 13 points and 11 boards. Calvert was recently named the Utah’s player of the year. Averee Porter scored eight and Mia Austin seven.
Fremont’s championship season came to end at 26-1, a Utah Class 6A state championship and a second trip to the GEICO Nationals. The Silverwolves were missing Oregon State-bound 6-3 junior Timea Gardiner, who missed most of the season with a knee injury.
And Fremont’s never-say-die attitude permeated, keeping the lower seed within striking distance but unable to claim a lead after a brief 3-0 edge in the opening minute.
On three occasions, Fremont trailed by double digits but clawed back. Westlake led 49-41 after three and stretched the lead to 14 points when Johnson nailed a 15-footer for a 45-31 lead. Mendelson, Porter and Calvert rallied the Wolves in the final three minutes.
Fremont may have the have the height advantage with Calvert and Mendelson but the 1-2 backcourt punch of Latson and South Carolina-bound Johnson were too much in the first half when the Westlake carried a comfortable 37-28 lead.
Johnson was crafty with the ball in the waning seconds of the second quarter and with the Utahans closing within six points, the All-American guard simply lulled the defense, stepped back and swished long NBA-type 3-pointer that beat the buzzer.
Fremont’s Achilles heel was taking care of the basketball, which it does not. It was a costly 10 turnovers that led to Westlake’s 20 points and the difference in the game. The three-time Georgia state champions thrive in up-tempo, pressure defense while Fremont is a half-court club with size and solid perimeter shooters.
Westlake took away Fremont’s bread-and-butter for the most part but Mendelson’s play kept her team alive heading into the third quarter. The Silverwolves did hit on 13 of 26 shots (50 percent).
Johnson had 14 points and assisted five times and Latson topped her team with 16 points on 6 of 11 shooting. For Fremont, it was all Mendelson with 17 points (8 of 11 from the floor) and four rebounds. Calvert added six points and four boards.
Fremont appeared rattled in the first quarter and fell behind by double digits at 22-11 with 96 seconds left. That’s Mendelson used her height to bury a short jumper and Austin, the team’s top perimeter threat, canned a 3-pointer and suddenly Fremont was only down 22-16 after one. Mendelson netted nine in the period.
Latson provided the early scoring touch with eight points in just over four minutes when the Lady Lions grabbed an 11-7 lead. Westlake’s defense forced five quick turnover and made 5 of 9 shots.