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Despite big loss, Lady Knights still on right track
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Johnson High’s Ryleigh Shannon, left, dives for a loose ball with Jefferson’s Bethany Whitlock during the first half of the Lady Knights' Tuesday night game at the Johnson High gymnasium.

OAKWOOD — Late in the fourth quarter of Tuesday night’s game against Jefferson, Johnson High’s Sasha Edge tipped the ball out of the hands of a Lady Dragon, dove on the floor and tossed it ahead to Harlee Robson for an easy layup.

It was hustle at its purest, made more impressive by the fact that it didn’t occur with the game on the line; it came with her team down by 25 points.

“That’s something that we’re about,” Johnson coach Kory Bays said following his team’s 49-25 loss Tuesday in Oakwood. “If we don’t have that effort, we have nothing. That play epitomizes this team.”

It is also indicative of the turnaround of the Lady Knights (13-9, 7-2 Region 8B-AAA), who already have the same amount of wins as the past four seasons combined. Their two wins last year were the first wins since the 2007-08 season when they finished 4-19.

“They’ve seen the worst of the worst,” said Bays, the former men’s coach at Warner University (Fla.) who took over the program prior to last year. Bays is the third head coach since Benjie Wood led the Lady Knights to back-to-back Class AAA semifinals from 2005-06.

“The turnover was too much,” Bays added. “The girls were left with a feeling that no one cared about them. They just wanted to fade into the distance.

“To their credit, it would have been easy for them to throw in the towel.”

Enter Bays, who said, “the girls were what he needed and he was what they needed.”

That was evident Tuesday against Jefferson.

Trailing by as much as 16 points early in the game, the Lady Knights went on a 6-0 run to cut the deficit to five points at intermission.

That deficit shrank to three points early in the third, but then Jefferson’s Skylar Evanson and Kellie Goza hit three straight 3-pointers that sparked a 21-0 run that put the game out of reach. Evanson finished with a game-high 27 points and eight steals. Bailey Boyd added nine points, and Rachel Goza had nine rebounds for the Lady Dragons.

“They beat us three times and they’ve handled us easy all three times,” Bays said of the Lady Dragons. “They have enough skill players where they can really hurt you.”

Jefferson made it easy in large part because the Lady Knights struggled shooting the ball. Johnson made just nine of 52 shots, and had it not been for the hustle plays late in the fourth quarter, the Lady Knights would have been held to single digits in every quarter.

“Unfortunately we lost the game, but we’re still having a great year,” said Johnson senior Caitlin Sloan, who finished with 13 points and eight rebounds.

This year’s success, which included the program’s first win against Gainesville since 2006, is mainly because of the effort of the four seniors: Sloan, Kelsha Brooks, Kenesha Cooper and Carlyn Ivey.

“I can’t say enough about those girls and how much they mean to our team,” said Bays, who also credited guards Ryleigh Shannon and Harlee Robson for the team’s turnaround.

Although he credits his players, Sloan said the team wouldn’t be where it is without Bays.

“Coach brought us together inside and out,” she said. “He built our character and that gave us confidence on the court.”

While Tuesday’s performance squashed any momentum built from Friday’s win over Gainesville, Bays said it was just a product of having a poor night shooting against a quality opponent.

“We just weren’t making any shots,” he said. “We haven’t shot that poorly since last year.”

And last year feels like ages ago for these Lady Knights, who are just one of two teams in their subregion with a winning record.

“We’re still humble,” Bays said. “We tell these girls all the time to never forget where you come from.”

Where they came from and where they are now couldn’t be further apart.

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