BUFORD, Ga. — Erianna Card has a nickname. They call her Superwoman.
Maybe it’s because the 5-foot-7 Newton girls basketball player, among the tallest on a height challenged squad, has a penchant — perhaps even a passion — for being matched up with players bigger and taller than her, often doing more than just holding her own.
Or perhaps it’s because she has this little mid-range, turnaround jumper as a secret weapon that she hits with a superhero’s consistency and timing — often when the Lady Rams are badly in need of a bucket in the paint.
Or maybe there’s something deeper in Card that causes her to push through the kind of adversity that makes being down by 18 points in the third quarter to a four-time defending state champion seem like child’s play.
Card has been one of Newton’s most reliable performers during this 2017-18 Championship run, and ultimately that didn’t change in Newton’s 65-57 come-from-behind win over McEachern Saturday.
She’s a senior. She’s a been-there-done-that kind of player. But on the Saturday morning before Newton was set to tip off against the Lady Indians in the Class AAAAAAA semifinals, Superwoman got dealt a big dose of kryptonite.
“My day didn’t start out too well,” Card said after the Lady Rams were free to talk about their improbable championship game berth. “My grandfather passed away this morning.”
And because of that, she had a message for the other girls she shares the court with.
“I told my teammates I can’t take two Ls in one day,” she said.
A different kind of adversity
Card said her grandfather had been sick for a little while. He had been on life support the whole week leading up to Saturday’s game, and Card actually missed a couple of days of practice to be with him.
When Newton coach Tiffani Johnson told a small contingent of reporters that faith and belief were the key ingredients in what people saw the Lady Rams do on the court to McEachern, you got the sense that she was talking about something much deeper than basketball.
“It was belief to know what we could do, and faith in what we can’t see,” Johnson said. “And we had it today. We had both, and we were able to push through.”
To be sure, there was definitely a lot to push through on the court as well as off. Newton picked the worst time of the season to have its worst first half shooting performance of the season. Lexii Chatman hit a pair of buckets in the first quarter. Takiya Cotton drilled a three. But it wasn’t enough to keep them from going down 21-10 at the end of the first quarter.
In the second quarter, it was more of the same. McEachern’s Jasmine Carson was hot with 13 first-half points, and armed with seemingly unlimited shooting range. Victoria Agyin seemed to get to the cup at will.
And the fact that McEachern, up by 15 at halftime, only spent about a minute of the break in the locker room before coming back out on the court to casually shoot around, was a sign that the Lady Indians were exuding some of the swagger — and maybe a bit of overconfidence — associated with being a four-time defending state champion and having a commanding lead over the girls from Covington who’d never been here before.
When Daimayah McPherson opened up the third quarter with a lay-up that stretched McEachern’s lead to 18, no one knew that Chatman’s answer-back 3-pointer 21 seconds later was the beginning of Newton’s journey to make Newton’s coach out to be a prophet.
The Return of Superwoman
In most superhero tales, there’s always a point in the narrative where it looks like the hero or heroin is about to be defeated — that the impossible is about to happen against the protagonist’s will.
That there would be no timely return of that hero’s super powers, and that the antagonist in the story would finally get the spoils. This happened to ‘Superwoman’ on Saturday, and Card wasn’t too ashamed to acknowledge it.
“It started out real slow for me,” she said. “I just couldn’t get it going.”
Anyone watching noticed this. But Card’s sluggishness didn’t just start on the court.
“At first when we ran out onto the court with the cheerleaders, I couldn’t even run out with my team,” she said. “I had to have my coaches help me to run out there. Like I said, that first half, I couldn’t get anything going. But that second half…”
Her voice trailed off a bit. Tears began to well up in her eyes. But after a moment of self-composure, you could see her regaining her strength as she shared the reason why she looked like a different player in the second half, which in turn, helped Newton look like a different team.
“In the second half, I felt like…I felt like my grandfather’s heart stopped, but then it kept on going through me,” she said.
Maybe she told Johnson that same thing in those exact words. Maybe that’s why the voice of a fairly stoic coach — at least when she’s talking to reporters about basketball — broke and cracked a bit, her eyes glossing over with tears as she explained to reporters the tragedy that befell one of her players just moments before tip-off.
“Erianna Card,” Johnson said before taking that emotional pause, then talking with a hint of a cry trying to power through her throat. She quickly snapped back into coach mode
“Her grandfather passed this morning,” Johnson said, “but she pushed through it. She did great.”
Particularly on defense. She only scored two points in the 17-2 third quarter run that eventually turned things in Newton’s favor, and she finished with four. But based on Chatman’s assessment, her presence was felt more in how she helped limit McEachern’s Carson.
“We put our best defenders on her,” Chatman said. “Erianna, Jurnee and (Takiya) Cotton. They locked her down.”
Carson had at least four inches on Card — maybe six on Cotton. But Johnson knew that Carson was more of a finesse player than one who wanted to bang.
“We finally honed in on Carson and (Jewel Smalls),” Johnson said. “We knew (Carson) wanted to shoot more than penetrate, so we would run her off the line. If she gets it, she’s gonna have to work for it.”
That hard-nosed mentality was right up Card’s alley. And she explained why a full season of guarding players much taller and bigger than her was inconsequential to her success as a baller.
“Size doesn’t matter,” Card said with a smirk. “My stepdad — well, he’s really my dad — but, he is so big, and I’m always bucking up against him. So I look at a player who’s 6-4, I say, ‘My stepdad’s 6-4 too,’ and if I can buck up against him, I can buck up against you.’”
The Prophecy Fulfilled
Johnson said during Friday’s practice that McEachern couldn’t hang with them for four quarters. She said her Newton squad was in better shape. They were battle-tested. It wasn't going to be a one-sided game. At some point she knew it would turn into a nip-tuck affair.
She felt that when it came time for a chess match in the game, she believed her girls could outlast the champs.
During McEachern’s run, a couple of fans shouted instructions to McEachern players to keep the pressure on. “They’re getting tired,” one fan said. But Johnson knew better. And after Saturday’s game, she had no problems reiterating what she had predicted.
“I knew we were in better shape,” she said. “I knew we could hang. I didn’t think they could do what they normally do with the press defense and running on offense longer than we could go. Right before we went out in the second half, we told them one possession at a time, one defensive stop at a time.”
Chatman virtually said the same.
“At no part of the game did we say we were going to lose,” Chatman said. “We never said we were going to lose. Down by 20, 25, 30 points. We never said we were gonna lose. We just kept saying, ‘We’re not going to lose this game.’”
Johnson and Chatman seemed to know that beyond strategy, matchups and Xs and Os, this team’s heart was too big and it had gone through too much outside of the game of basketball to let one bad half of hoops cause it go down without a fight.
“The morale of the story was we kept fighting,” Johnson said. “No matter what you see or what’s in front of you, keep fighting. We all did that today.” And shortly after she said that, she referenced Superwoman again.
But Superwoman was in no mood to take any credit. Perhaps it’s because she knew what it was that really made her super — especially on Saturday.
“This feels really good,” Card said. “To know we’re going to play our last game together as seniors for a championship. To know all that I fought through and all that we fought through. It’s good. We grew up together. We’re here because we’re in it together.”