If it looks like Newton’s Jurnee Smith is playing on another level these last several games, it’s because she is — intentionally.
It all started when the junior guard scored 38 points in five quarters of action, dating back to a 12-point fourth quarter explosion in a loss to South Gwinnett on Jan. 20.
In that game, Lady Rams coach Tiffani Johnson revealed a personal challenge she gave to Smith that it was her time to take control of the game and put her team on her back.
Apparently, after a 26-point performance last Tuesday in Newton’s 71-52 win against Grayson, Smith is still responding to the challenge. In fact, she has taken it upon herself to make it more personal.
“At this point, I think it’s a challenge Jurnee has given to herself,” Johnson said. “I think that particular game (against South Gwinnett) showed her what she can do. And sometimes, you don’t know what you can do until you push past the envelope. Now, I think in that last game she pushed herself to do a little bit more. So now, each game, I’m hoping she can just keep challenging herself to a little bit more each game to get better.”
Smith says the challenge was probably the best thing that could’ve happened to her junior season.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s also making me a better player,” Smith said. “I feel like I can get overcome anything.”
She hit double figures, and led the team in scoring when Newton traveled to beat rival Rockdale County 71-53 last Friday. And her 17 points in this past Tuesday’s gritty 58-49 win over Shiloh tied her for team lead with Lexii Chatman. But 10 of Smith’s 17 came down the stretch, starting late in the third quarter and through the end of regulation as she sank four big free throws late in the fourth quarter.
“We had to get offense wherever we could (against Shiloh), and Jurnee was there giving it to us when we needed it,” Johnson said. “She’s still playing at a very high level. I think what you’re seeing with her is she’s found her game. She’s found her comfort and she’s working well in that place right now.”
Smith says she looks back on that tough loss to South Gwinnett when her late season coming of age sort of began, and still wishes she could have it back. But she also acknowledges how that shortfall sparked something in her that perhaps wasn’t there before.
On Friday night against an Archer team (19-4 and 8-1 in Region 8-AAAAAAA) that’s tied with the Lady Rams for first in the region, she’ll have another chance to find her sweet spot on the court and send off the Lady Rams’ two seniors with a regular season region title on senior night.
“That (South Gwinnett) game just opened my eyes up,” Smith said. “Like we were down in that game and trying to get back up. We had an opportunity to win in the fourth quarter, and to pull something off like that just boosted my confidence and our team’s confidence. It makes us think we can accomplish anything.”