Jurnee Smith gave her best superhero impression during the fourth quarter of Newton’s Friday night game against South Gwinnett, but it still wasn’t enough.
The seventh-ranked Lady Rams fell 64-58 in a home region matchup against the Lady Comets, despite a team-high 18 points from Smith — 14 of which came in a fourth quarter that saw the two squads dead locked at 44.
Newton coach Tiffani Johnson said it was her plan to put the ball in Smith’s hands down the stretch, and even in a losing effort, she’s proud of how the junior guard responded to the challenge.
“I looked at her right before the fourth quarter and told her, ‘Baby, it’s time to go,’” Johnson said.
Smith went to work in the last period of play right after South Gwinnett’s 6-foot-1 senior center Alexis Lewis went down low to the right block, scored on a layup and nailed a free throw to convert a three-point play that gave the Lady Comets a 47-44 lead.
Smith knocked down two free throws on the next possession, then, capitalizing off a South Gwinnett turnover, she drove through traffic on her way to score on a layup.
South Gwinnett promptly answered, however when Jasmine Williams and Lewis scored on back-to-back possessions to grab a 53-52 lead. Smith answered back again, this time with a scoop layup, that actually put Newton up 54-53 with 3:06 remaining. It would be the last lead Newton would enjoy, as Lewis scored buckets on back-to-back possessions after Newton turnovers.
Lewis was fouled on the second hoop, which sent her to the line to convert another old fashioned three point play that allowed South Gwinnett to reclaim the lead for good. Lewis, Williams and Xian Lopez hit key free throws down the stretch to help the Lady Comets ice the game and raise their record to 13-5 overall and 4-2 in Region 8-AAAAAAA.
After a scoreless first quarter, Lewis heated up to a game-high 23 points in the last three periods, including 13 in that fateful fourth quarter.
The Comets, winners of nine of its last 10 games, avenged their 59-55 home loss to Newton on Dec. 9 in a game that Johnson wishes her team could’ve won, in tribute to Smith’s monster second half.
“I definitely give kudos to Jurnee,” she said. “She stepped up. I wish we were able to get that victory for just the way she played. She really put the team on our back and got us going.”
It was early foul trouble for Newton that made it hard for the Lady Rams to get untracked. At one point in the first half, Johnson had three and sometimes four of her starters and key players on the bench due to foul trouble.
“That had a big factor on the way we played the rest of the game,” she said. “We are an uptempo, defensive team, so that kind of put us in a bind for what we typically like to do defensively. But that’s part of basketball. Mentally we’ve got to learn how to play through it.”
In order to finish well, Johnson’s squad will be looking to bounce back from some recent, sharp ebbs and flows.
There was the win at then-No. 5 Archer last week — a team that boasted more size than South Gwinnett — and then domination against Heritage of Newnan. Then a loss to Fayette County last Monday in the MLK Holiday Classic, followed up the next day by a 62-52 grinder of a win against Rockdale, all before South Gwinnett.
But Johnson, whose team is now 16-4 overall and still atop the region standings with a 5-1 record, doesn’t have a lack of confidence about her squad’s ability to finish strong.
“The game of basketball is a game of runs and ups and downs,” she said. “So I’m not really concerned. The coaches work hard. Our girls work hard. We’ll get through it. It’s just one of those phases that happens in a season. But we’re still having a good season. It’s still not over for us at all.”