LOVEJOY — The Lovejoy Lady Wildcats trailed the Stephenson Lady Jaguars for more than 30 of 32 minutes in Wednesday night’s showdown between the top two teams in Region 4-AAAAAA.
But that all changed with 1:21 left in the game. Freshman guard Genesis Bryant capped off a furious 13-1 run with a three-pointer to give her team a 38-35 lead. The Lady Wildcats played enough defense in the final minute to pull out the 40-37 victory, improving to 10-0 in region play and into sole possession of first place ahead of Stephenson.
The Lady Wildcats had to overcome a slow start to the game, as Stephenson raced out to a 10-0 lead. The Lady Jaguars took a 14-5 advantage into the second quarter after Lovejoy finally scored nearly five minutes into the contest.
“We didn’t embrace the moment,” Lovejoy head coach Cedric King said regarding his team’s slow start. “We talked about the moment. We talked about college coaches coming. We’re in the moment, this is the game. Big games are what you live for, you have to want to play in those things. It killed us, but you got to think about it — this is the first time this program has been in something like that. So you expect something like that.”
The Lady Wildcats did chip away at Stephenson’s advantage in the second quarter. They outscored their opponents 9-6 in the period, but still trailed by a score of 20-16 heading into halftime.
After holding the Lady Jaguars to just six points in the second quarter, Lovejoy produced another strong defensive effort in the third quarter. Stephenson only scored four points in the period. At the same time, Bryant got Lovejoy going offensively with a three-point play that cut the lead to 23-21 with 3:44 left in the quarter. Bryant added a steal and coast-to-coast layup at the end of the quarter to bring her team within one point at 24-23 heading into the last eight minutes.
“We got tougher, we got tougher,” King said when asked about his team’s turnaround in the middle quarters. “We got a little bit tougher and we didn’t turn the ball over as much and attacked the glass.”
Lovejoy wasted several opportunities to take the lead and paid for it early in the fourth quarter. Naomi Holloway scored five points in a row in the middle of the quarter to give Stephenson a 34-25 lead and to force a Lovejoy timeout.
“Keep fighting, keep fighting,” King said regarding the message after Stephenson’s run. “We switched up the defense right quick then, we trapped a little bit and then went back to our man matchup, our staple. Once we got the lead, we matched up and it was just about protecting the basket.”
The Lady Wildcats responded out of the timeout with six straight points, beginning with an Amber Thornton jumper. Bryant and Thornton combined for a steal which led to a Bryant layup, before Anaya Boyd cut the lead to 34-31 after coming up with an offensive rebound and a layup.
Bryant cut the lead to two points with two free throws on Lovejoy’s next possession. After Holloway made one free throw on the other end, Thornton tied the game at 35-all with a runner in the lane. On the next possession, Lovejoy’s defense forced a Stephenson turnover which led to Bryant’s go-ahead three-pointer with just over a minute to go.
Stephenson had several chances to take the lead in the final seconds. Lovejoy ran down the clock to 20 seconds, but a turnover and a foul led to free throws for the Lady Jaguars. Both shots were missed, but Bryant threw away a pass after corralling the rebound. Holloway’s contested layup fell off the rim, but went out of bounds off a Lovejoy player.
After a timeout with six seconds left, Stephenson’s long three-point try sailed out of bounds. Bryant was fouled with 1.5 seconds on the clock, sinking both free throws to give her team a three-point lead. Stephenson’s last-second heave to the basket bounced off the rim, as the home gym celebrated the comeback victory.
Bryant led Lovejoy with 15 points, while Thornton added 10 points. King said he was proud of how Bryant rose to the occasion despite being a freshman.
“That age, the upside is great. The upside is so great with her,” he said. “I had a talk with her today telling her ‘your getting better has to get better. You have to get more in the moment.’ She still has those freshman moments where she doesn’t practice hard all the time, she doesn’t do the little things all the time. But she can be a special kid if she continues to develop and get better.”
Lovejoy improved to 16-2 overall and 10-o in league play with six games left in the season. With his team ranked No. 4 in Class AAAAAA and coming off a win over the No. 5 team, King said he’s optimistic about what his team can accomplish in the postseason with improved fundamentals.
“We got to get better, we got to rebound and we got to not turn the ball over. I learned that,” he said. “We have everything we need, we just have to rebound and not turn the ball over and we can compete with anybody in the state.”