By Jeremy Stafford - firstname.lastname@example.org
STRASBURG -- Just relax.
Slow your game down. Square up to the hoop and take your shot.
For five games, Strasburg senior Jennifer Jackson has tried to find her game, tried to play at the level she knows she's capable of playing. Because being away from basketball for an extended period of time has a funny way of hampering a player's ability to score.
Finally back on the hardwood in Strasburg purple after missing the tail end of the 2008-09 season, Jackson came into this season admittedly tense. She rushed her shots. Her fundamentals were missing. Her shots weren't falling.
But in a 55-41 Strasburg win over Luray in the Daily Classic semifinals, Jackson had a team-high 10 points, surging the Rams to the championship bout against Broadway on Wednesday.
"Up to this point she's been really rushed on the offensive end -- she's been in a really big hurry," Strasburg coach Joel Morgan said. "I think tonight is about her best game just in terms of slowing down and fixing some of those things on the offensive end."
After scoring only two points in the first half -- falling in line with the rest of the Strasburg offense, which fell out of sync against Luray's zone defense in the first half -- Jackson slowed her mind, found her game and scored four times in the game's latter half.
"I did tense up a lot out there," Jackson admitted. "I just had to let things go, and after [Morgan] kind of [got after] me a couple times, I started slowing things down and just relaxing and was able to get out there."
Not only a force on the blocks, where she nabbed rebounds and bullied Bulldogs through the paint, Jackson twice scored in transition, picking off a couple Luray passes and flaunting a rare speed for such a powerful forward.
"I think the more she relaxes the better player she is," Rams senior Jenna Smoot said. "For the past couple games she's done a good job of going out and playing how she knows how to play, and really thinking about her fundamentals and working on that."
Smoot contributed nine points for the Rams, and senior guard Jaclyn Ayers had eight.
Matched up man-to-man against a tall, stringy guard in Emily Heiston, Ayers, at first glance, suffered from a severe height disadvantage. Yet the quick, scrappy guard flourished, holding Heiston to two field goals in nine attempts and eight points. Ayers picked off Luray passes like pennies on the floor, and scored on the ensuing fast breaks.
And the Rams needed those breaks.
With only a limited experience playing against zone defenses, Strasburg slowly sloshed the ball around the perimeter, looking for openings but rarely seeing them. Though a handful of jumpers from Ayers helped make the Rams' 17-point first quarter their most profitable one, the Bulldogs' box-and-one defense forced five Strasburg turnovers, and limited Smoot's potency in the paint.
"I don't think we were willing to pass the ball and work the ball enough," Smoot said. "Sometimes we didn't move it fast enough; sometimes we just kinda held the ball. There were a lot of times where if we were to just work the ball faster, the middle would come wide open, but I don't think we looked for that enough.
"By the end of the game, though, we had some nice plays in the zone and I think that helped us."
And then there was the play from Jackson, now relaxed, now revitalized. Because, Luray is no slouch of a team, and is perfectly capable of mounting a momentous run. Without Jackson's points, without Jackson's steals, who is to say what the Bulldogs might have wrought.
Said Smoot of the possibility: "If she [hadn't] gotten those baskets there, maybe the tide could have turned a different way."