COLUMBUS, Ga. — Most of Jurnee Smith’s freshman season on the Columbus State women’s basketball team has been about making huge adjustments.
Adjustments from being the well-known Newton senior that Lady Rams fans cheered on, coach Tiffani Johnson depended on and opponents game planned for to being a true freshman toiling in obscurity on a NCAA Division II team.
Adjustments from being a go-to scorer, to logging a few minutes off the bench for the sole purpose of being a defensive stopper.
Adjustments from things coming easily because of her athleticism to her having to bump up her basketball smarts against college athletes every bit as athletic — if not moreso — as her.
And that doesn't even include the tweaks made to how she approaches the increased rigor of a college classroom.
But for one moment in a Peach Belt Conference Tournament game at Flagler in St. Augustine, Florida, the old Jurnee Smith showed up.
The Lady Cougars had battled their way back from a 19-point deficit, and the score was tied at 68 after Flagler sank a pair of free throws with 17 seconds left. On the ensuing possession, Columbus State’s Kaihla Carter threw up a 3-pointer, with five seconds left that missed. Smith, in a loose-ball situation, grabbed the ball and tossed up a short jumper in the lane that went in.
Smith also drew the foul on the shot with 0.4 seconds left, and sank the and-one free throw to provide Columbus State a 71-68 victory. It also gave the 5-foot-7 freshman deja vu.
“Oh yeah, that moment felt familiar. Especially the free throws,” Smith said. “It took me back to when I was back at Newton and we were in the playoffs and I had to go to the line and knock down four free throws to give us a win.”
She was referencing the Cherokee game last March in the Class AAAAAAA state playoffs when she buried the foul shots that gave Newton a 70-68 win over the state’s No. 5 squad at the time — a win that punched the Lady Rams’ ticket to their first Final Four since 1972. Newton would go on to lose to Westlake in the Class AAAAAAA state championship game.
Smith scored 18 points in that Elite Eight contest with Cherokee. In the Peach Belt Conference tourney game with Flagler? She scored three, all of them coming from those last few seconds of the game. But those three points came in the same sort of moments that she Smith thrived in at Newton.
“That’s what (coach Anita Howard) called me,” Smith said. “She said, ‘You are clutch.’”
The scenario was such a bang-bang situation that Smith said she didn’t even have time to be nervous, which was set up the perfect environment for her natural basketball instincts to kick in.
“It was double overtime, and one of our key players had fouled out of the game,” she said. “We were basically relying on our freshman players who were basically defensive players at the time. So when it went to offensive transition I wasn’t looking to score. But I saw time was winding down, my teammate took the last shot and it missed and all I could think about was, ‘go get this rebound and get up a shot.’”
It’s the kind of scrappiness that the 5-foot-7 point guard exhibited, whenever given the chance, throughout her first season at Columbus. Smith’s stat sheet looked meager, especially compared to what people were used to seeing during her Newton days. She played in 24 games, averaging 1.9 points and 1.5 rebounds per game while seeing about 11 minutes of action per contest in the 2018-19 campaign.
And while the adjustments have been difficult, Smith said she knows they were necessary, and it’s just setting a foundation for her to build upon for the next three years.
“Actually it was very hard coming here, because in high school I could give up a bucket and then get the ball and go get one right back,” Smith said. “In college, you have to learn how to set up plays, slow the ball down and set teammates up. So I learned that I had to look for my teammates first as a point guard instead of trying to score first.”
Smith said it’s making her better. Making her hungrier to succeed. That and the fact that Columbus State will have a new coach when the 2019-20 season rolls around, which means Smith feels she'll have to prove herself all over again to a new staff.
On March 27, Howard was introduced as the new head women’s basketball coach at Georgia Southern. And while Smith acknowledges the coaching change caught her off guard a bit, she also said she understands the business side of things. But Smith, herself, has no plans of going anywhere.
“The way (coach Howard) explained it, the job was a better opportunity for her, and this job is how she feeds her family, so I understand that,” Smith said. “But it actually makes me want to push harder and work on getting better at the things that got me here to help make our team better and show that this is a good program to stay at.”
Four seniors from this year’s Columbus State squad that finished 16-13 will depart, making way for players like Smith to emerge as a sophomore. Smith says she wouldn’t have it any other way, though, as far as her freshman experience. She said the way it all played out was good for her holistic development.
“Academics wise, besides basketball, I feel like I’ve matured more,” she said. “When you’re on your own, your responsibilities change, and it makes you have to grow up. Also, it just made me a better point guard IQ wise. I have to think more. In high school I didn’t have to think as much.”
Smith said she’d be working in the offseason to get better with creating her own shot and becoming a better scorer.
“People knew this year that I wasn’t a great shooter, so they’d leave me open to shoot it, or they’d know I’d not want to shoot it,” she said. “So if I get better with creating my own shot, if they give me space, I can make it, and if they close out on me, I can drive around them.”
Beyond her game-winner against Flagler, Smith said the main highlight of her season was playing against Georgia Southwestern on January 16 and former Newton teammate Lex Chatman.
Chatman’s squad won the game 78-75 and Chatman scored 12 points. Smith acknowledged there was a little friendly trash talking out there when they both were on the floor at the same time, but after the game it was still all love.
“She beat us in that game,” Smith said. “And yeah, we would talk on the court. Some of my teammates would ask why I was talking or laughing out on the floor, and I’d tell them that that’s my teammate. So it’s nothing personal on the court, and off the court that’s still my friend at the end of the day.”
Smith said she actually talks to both Chatman and fellow former Newton teammate Erianna Card (Voorhees College) “at least three days out of the week.”
“Erianna’s busy playing softball now,” Smith said. “She can’t sit down for nothing. Lex is doing good in basketball and academics. Her coach has retired, so we’re kind of in similar situations.”
Smith said that even though the college coach that recruited her is gone, the Covington native doesn’t feel coach-less.
“I talk with Coach Johnson all the time,” Smith said. “We have our words and she continues to be on me. Even though she’s two hours away, I still look at her as if she’s still my coach.”
In fact, the words and advice of Johnson and her Newton coaching staff permeated Smith’s mind even as she found herself facing the biggest moment of her young college career against Flagler.
“Their voices were going through my head while I was at that free throw line,” she said. “Her and coach (Lavon) White. It helped me calm down and just do what I normally do.”
Now, with a year under her belt, Smith said she’s ready to take these next three years by storm and carve out for herself a reputation in college that resembles what she became known for in high school.
“When people see me play next season, I think they’ll notice my aggressiveness,” she said. “It’s gonna be a big difference in me next year. I think I was a little too soft this season, so I’m planning to come back way harder. I was used to my name being everywhere in high school, but when I came here nobody knew who I was. But I’m going to work to make sure that changes this year.”