As the newly-crowned all-time leading scorer in CCRI women’s basketball history, Jahira Smith has earned a little leeway. But when she practices banking in fadeaway floaters, head coach Kate Lynch shakes her head.
“Coach is always like, ‘What are you doing? Why are you doing that?’” Smith said.
After Sunday’s Region XXI championship, Smith could smile and say I told you so. Smith’s running bank shot with 10 seconds left in overtime gave the Lady Knights a one-point lead and they added two late free throws on their way to a 68-65 victory over Monroe College and the program’s 10th consecutive region championship.
“It means everything,” Smith said. “We did it last year so it feels good to replay it again. We were focused all week for this and we did it. It took heart.”
CCRI and Monroe are no strangers to each other, having met six times in the past two seasons. This year, they split two games, with the Lady Knights winning the first in overtime and the Mustangs winning by 19 the second time. Monroe is the defending national champion.
Heading into Sunday’s match-up, both teams had already qualified for the district tournament, but they were playing for seeding and the right to call themselves regional champs.
Monroe seemed to have the inside track when it went to halftime leading by 10. The Lady Knights battled back, though, took the lead with 5:52 left and led by as many as five in the final minute. But with the lead trimmed to three in the waning seconds, Monroe’s Jasmine McRoy pulled down an offensive rebound, made the putback and got fouled with just two-tenths of a second on the clock. She hit the free throw to force overtime.
“When McRoy hit that shot at that end, it’s kind of a buzz kill for us,” said CCRI head coach Kate Lynch. “It’s almost like we had to just keep our players up and motivated. If another five minutes is what it was going to take, then that’s what we had to do. We said that before the game – it might take 40 minutes, it might take 45, it might take 50. Whatever it is, you’ve got to give 100 percent, no regrets.”
After coming up empty on its first five possessions of overtime, the Lady Knights got two free throws by Nyjah Porcher to tie the game again with 1:54 left. After an offensive foul by Monroe, Porcher hit another free throw to put CCRI ahead by one with 1:10 left. With 50 seconds to go, Monroe went in front 65-64, and CCRI gave the ball right back on a travel.
The Lady Knights focused on buckling down defensively while Monroe ran the shot clock down. Smith forced McRoy into a contested jumper, and the Lady Knights got the rebound. Ahnyyah Jackson pushed the ball ahead to Smith, who had slipped out after the defensive stop.
“I played good defense on that end,” Smith said. “I leaked out, Ahnyyah threw it to me, and I was like, ‘Oh, man, I’ve got to do something with this.’”
She went to one of her old favorites, even if it’s not a coach’s favorite.
As the defense caught up to her, Smith knifed across the lane, jumped and faded to her right as she let go of a floater. She banked it in to give CCRI the 66-65 lead.
“It’s funny,” Smith said. “I usually do that same exact shot in practice. It paid off.”
Monroe still had life but Ashley Castle missed a floater in the lane, and a Mustangs player stepped out of bounds as she tried to corral the rebound. The Lady Knights inbounded the ball and Jackson was fouled with 0.5 seconds on the clock. She made both free throws and Monroe didn’t get another shot off.
The celebration was on.
“It means a lot to our players,” Lynch said. “This is a group that came in last year and kind of defied all odds to beat Monroe when we needed to beat them. They were disappointed that we lost to Lackawanna last year in the districts. Their motto has been unfinished business. They really keyed on that all year.”
That will to win was on full display as the Lady Knights delivered their second-half rally. They outscored Monroe 25-13 over the first 14 minutes of the second half, culminating in a leaner by Lexi Barros that gave CCRI a 49-47 lead.
Smith, who became the school’s all-time leading scorer in a win over Orange County Community College the day before, scored eight straight points to power the late stages of that run.
“We’ve been in that spot before,” Lynch said. “We went into halftime and said, ‘We shot less than 30 percent from the floor.’ Our defensive plan was working. Shots just weren’t going in. We said, ‘Hey, it can’t get any worse from here.’ We just had to stay positive in that situation and it turned around for us.”
And CCRI didn’t blink, even when Monroe made its run. After Castle buried a deep three to tie the game with 4:15 left, Barros answered with a three of her own. Free throws by Porcher and Smith, plus a bucket inside by Jenna Ayala pushed the lead to five with 43 seconds left.
The Mustangs eventually came all the way back, but CCRI’s overtime finish made the difference.
“If we lost that game, okay, because they played their best and they played their hearts out,” Lynch said. “We’re just happy to come up on the winning end.”
Smith scored 25 to lead the charge for the Lady Knights. Porcher added 14 points and 22 rebounds, good for her 14th double-double of the season. Jackson chipped in 12 points. Castle led all scorers with 29.
The Lady Knights will now turn their attention to the District N/O Championship, which will be held this weekend at Cabrini College in Radnor, Pa. CCRI will play Delaware Tech on Saturday at 1 p.m. With a win in that game, the Lady Knights would clinch a berth in the national tournament.
“I think we’ve put ourselves in a pretty good position,” Lynch said. “We’re in the same spot we were in last year. Hopefully this year, we learn from our mistakes and come out on the better end of it all.”