JACKSONVILLE — It was just one play in the fourth quarter of a Tuesday afternoon basketball game, but it revealed a year's worth of growth and maturity by Jacksonville State's Yamia Johnson.
Playing in front of about 1,000 local elementary school children at Pete Mathews Coliseum for the JSU women's basketball team's Education Day, the Gamecocks trailed visiting Lipscomb by five with fewer than seven minutes to play. A JSU shot went awry and was about to bounce out of bounds along the endline.
But, in a battle to retrieve the ball, Johnson outhustled a Lipscomb player, grabbed the ball, drove into the lane, and made a difficult 10-foot hook shot over the Lipscomb player, who was guarding her diligently. It marked the start of a JSU run of 10 straight points, and by the end of it, the Gamecocks kept the lead for good, eventually hanging on for a 65-63 victory.
Johnson, a sophomore, finished with a game-high 21 points, and afterward, JSU coach Rick Pietri thought so much of her effort, he said, "We couldn't have done it without her today. We needed everything she brought to win this game."
That's a marked difference from a year ago when she was a freshman struggling to transition to the Division I college game.
"She and I talked about that," Pietri said. "She had to grow, and she had to be able to manage adversity better. I think this year, she's showing some growth."
As for that hook shot that looked uncomfortable to take but proved so important, Pietri said, "That was a growth play. A year ago, she doesn't convert that. Today, she did, and that shows some growth and maturity."
Making her big day even more impressive is that she missed about 3½ weeks of preseason practice time because of a concussion. She couldn't return to work until she was symptom free. She played sparingly in JSU's season-opening exhibition game and in Saturday's win over Florida A&M. In fact, Pietri said Johnson started slowly Tuesday as well, and as he was planning to take her out of the game, she nailed a 3-pointer, which earned her a chance to stay on the floor.
"It like the snowball started rolling," Pietri said.
Johnson said that when she was allowed to return to practice, she worked hard to get back her conditioning, timing and rhythm.
"I had been down and out, but I kept pushing," she said. "Even after a two-hour practice, I would stay and get the coaches to keep working with me."
What to know
—On JSU's annual Education Day, the bulk of its crowd usually comes from the children coming from local schools. On Saturday, organizers estimated 1,000 children came. Official attendance was listed at 1,250. JSU brought kids on the floor during breaks to participate in various games and events, such as a singalong with "Baby Shark." Later, while in the stands, the kids were louder when they sang along as "Let It Go" from the movie "Frozen" was played during a timeout.
—Destiney Elliott scored 10 points for JSU, grabbed four rebounds, blocked three shots and drew five fouls. She hit a pair of 3-pointers, including a big one with 5:13 to play that gave JSU a 51-49 lead. The Gamecocks never trailed afterward.
—Freshman guard Kiyah Thompson played 21 minutes off the bench, scored eight points and drew seven fouls, making 6 of 8 foul shots.
—Chloe Long didn't start, but she played a team-high 30 minutes. She contributed four points (all in the fourth quarter), five rebounds, four assists and no turnovers.
—Pietri now has 312 career wins, which ranks second all-time in the state for Division I women's basketball victories. Former Auburn head coach Joe Ciamp (568) is first, followed by Pietri (312) and former Alabama coach Rick Moody (311).
—Johnson on the win: "It felt good to win. It wasn't the prettiest, but we won, and that's all that matters.
—Pietri on JSU's improved outside shooting, which led to eight 3-pointers Tuesday, including three in the fourth quarter: "We put additional time and effort into it for a reason. Etched in my mind, there were four fourth quarters last year where we disappeared from the perimeter and the outcome of all four of those games flips if we could've made just a couple of perimeter shots. That changes the entire fabric of our year."
—JSU (2-0) is at Troy on Saturday at 2 p.m. This will be the Gamecocks' first road game of the season.