South Johnston’s varsity boys basketball team found themselves with the ball, down 44-42 with 12.9 seconds left in regulation Friday night at Triton. Coach Brody Massengill called timeout, drawing up a simple play. It didn’t quite go as planned, but senior point guard JaQuain Smith somehow found a driving lane and took the ball to the cup, tying up the game with 5.3 seconds left.
“I wasn’t so much nervous,” Smith said of the big moment. “But I did realize, ‘OK, the team is depending on me, the coaches are depending on me, I’ve got to make something happen.’”
Smith made things happen all night for the Trojans, especially in clutch moments, scoring 12 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter and overtime. With 50.8 seconds left, Smith went to the line with South holding a narrow 50-49 lead. He calmly sank both free throws, forcing Triton to try to shoot a 3-pointer to tie. The Hawks had a couple of looks but failed to convert, giving South the win 52-49.
“JaQuain was unbelievable,” Massengill said of Smith’s performance. “He was unbelievable late in the fourth and in overtime. You come down and run a ball screen for him and you know he’s going to make a play. It’s so fortunate having a fourth-year guard like him.”
It’s not surprising to see Smith rise to the occasion. He’s played in these types of high-stakes rivalries for four years, none bigger than the 2017 Two Rivers Conference Tournament Championship at regular season champ Triton. Smith, then a sophomore, had 12 points in a 62-57 overtime victory over the Hawks, including an old-fashioned 3-point play to open up the period.
“I’m kind of used to it at this point,” Smith said of the rivalry atmosphere. “Once you’ve played in a rivalry game like that [conference championship], you feel like you’re ready for the next one.”
Smith turned in solid performances in South’s first two games, scoring eight and 10 points in wins over Midway and Western Harnett. But now he’s really starting to find a rhythm, partly because he’s actually getting some practice time under his belt. Smith, a standout on South’s football team, wasn’t able to join the team until the day of the season opener on Monday, Nov. 19, because football season didn’t end until the Friday before.
Smith was an impact player in all three phases of the game for South. He finished the regular season with four receiving touchdowns, one rushing touchdown and a punt return for a touchdown. He also picked off three passes in the secondary. Two of those interceptions came in the first half of South’s senior night against Union Pines, a game in which the Trojans struggled early before pushing on to a 24-6 win. South football coach Matthew Riggsbee said after the game he thought South could have lost had it not been for Smith’s heroics, as both interceptions came in the red zone with Union Pines threatening. Smith also caught a touchdown pass late to extend the lead to 21-6.
Smith recalls that game fondly, but his favorite memory has nothing to do with his interceptions or his touchdown grab. Instead, it was watching Lane Parker, the team mascot, run in a celebratory touchdown before the start of the game.
“He was always such a bright spot for us,” Smith said of Parker. “It was nice we could do that for him.”
Smith doesn’t have any official plans for after high school, but he hopes he’ll have an opportunity to play either football or basketball at the next level. Until then, he’s focused on basketball season.
“We just have to keep working hard and improving in practice,” Smith said. “Coach [Massengill] pushes hard, and he treats every game as an important game because he wants us to achieve our goals and become better.”
Below is a list of some of JaQuain’s favorite things, as well as his ideal dinner guest list and whom he’d want with him to survive a zombie apocalypse.
Favorite Food: Pizza
Favorite Restaurant: Buffalo Wild Wings
Favorite Color: Green
Favorite Sport: Basketball
Favorite Sports Brand: Nike
Favorite Sports Team: Golden State Warriors
Favorite Athlete: Stephen Curry
Ideal Dinner Guest List: Beyonce, Kevin Hart and Ice Cube
Ideal Group to Survive a Zombie Apocalypse: Carl off of “Walking Dead,” Kevin Hall and my family. “Most of my friends would probably run.”