By Joe Davidson
STOCKTON - Lynette Johnson has suffered three concussions in her basketball career, but good luck convincing the Kennedy High School junior dynamo that a safer place is on the bench, in warmups, or to ease up on her game.
Basketball is her life, she says with an assured grin, and such is the rough-and-tumble nature of her craft, one also graced with skill and polish. With Johnson scoring 19 points to go with eight rebounds and start-to-finish poised leadership, Kennedy stunned top-seeded Pleasant Grove of Elk Grove 52-48 in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division I semifinal at the University of the Pacific on Tuesday night.
The No. 4-seeded Cougars of Greenhaven now seek the program's fifth large-school title since 2001 and ninth NorCal tournament bid in that span.
"I suffered my first concussion last year against Pleasant Grove - hit my head on the floor - and then a second one and had my third earlier this year, but I'm OK, and I can't change how I play," said Johnson, whose shy post-game demeanor doesn't relate to her game intensity. "This is who I am."
Johnson praised her teammates for their efforts against a terrifically talented Pleasant Grove team, saying the team collectively is "100 percent better" than they were earlier this season. Johnson credited defense for the improvement, and defense was the key against Pleasant Grove, ranked second by The Bee all season. Kennedy used a 16-0 run in the second half to take charge then held off the Eagles, who still advance to the NorCal tournament for the first time.
During that 16-0 run, Pleasant Grove went scoreless for seven minutes. The Eagles climbed to within 50-48 on a Wilmbley bucket with 38 seconds remaining and had a chance to tie or win it on a final possession that started after a time out with nine seconds to go. Kennedy came up with a steal and Johnson sealed it with two free throws with .3 seconds to go.
"We went cold," Pleasant Grove coach James McKeever said. "Lynette took care of business and we couldn't get any rhythm."
Jessica Lauderdale scored 10 for Kennedy, which made 20 of 22 free throws and withstood the 1-2 punch of Pleasant Grove's Dejza James (15 points, 14 rebounds) and Marissa Wimbley (13 and seven).
In the finals on Saturday at Power Balance Pavilion, Kennedy will take on a familiar foe in Oak Ridge, another program steeped in tradition. The sixth-seeded Trojans beat No. 2 Armijo 63-52 in the other semifinal. Oak Ridge denied Kennedy a D-I section title three-peat in 2010, en route to a state championship behind all-time program great Sara James, now at Stanford. Oak Ridge beat Kennedy 61-49 earlier this season.
Kennedy coach Dave Parsh said he has been intrigued with the potential of his bunch all season. The Cougars were battled tested in the Metro Conference by Bee No. 1 Sacramento and by Bee-ranked Florin and then bounced defending D-I champion St. Francis in a second-round game with Johnson going for a career-high tying 37 points. St. Francis had beaten Kennedy twice this season in nonleague games.
"It's a great win," Parsh said. "We saw Oak Ridge win and we want the rematch!"
Parsh said that amid laughter, understanding that the bulk of both rosters were not around in 2010 for that playoff showdown. Still, Parsh said the D-I field was ripe for the picking this season, and he's right as the top three seeds have been defeated.
"We thought D-I was wide open and we didn't think anyone was unbeatable," Parsh said. He said of Johnson, "This is great for her. She keeps fighting, playing well."
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