By S. Thomas Coleman
For the AJC
After another sluggish start to a game, Jonesboro head coach Daniel Maehlman let his team know that he was not pleased with a simple, if not R-rated two-word phrase: “This [rhymes with pucks].”
Instead of feeding their 6-foot-9 center Chukedubem Okeke on the low block or using the speed and athleticism of guards Patrick Petty and Cameron Sutton to slash to the basket, the Cardinals offense of choice in the early going at North Clayton was to settle for deep jumpers from the perimeter. The result was a 17-9 deficit at the end of the first quarter.
But Jonesboro (18-4, 12-1 in Region 4AAAA-Division B), ranked No. 6, came out firing on all cylinders in the second period and held off the pesky Eagles, 62-51, at North Clayton. The Cardinals had beaten North Clayton (11-11, 8-5) by 20 when the teams met two weeks ago.
“These guys are always going to play hard defensively,” said Maehlman. “But why we don’t come out aggressively attacking the basket instead of settling for 22-foot jump shots, I have no idea. The best way to get your offense going early is to get some easy baskets by attacking the basket. We’ve told them that a million times. I don’t know what else to say.”
Maehlman has a tough time getting that point across because his players know how good they are, and know they can take a game by the throat at any moment. Tuesday night was a case in point, as Jonesboro went on a 12-1 run to start the second quarter to take a 21-18 lead. North Clayton eventually went back ahead, 27-23, after a four-point play by senior guard Stefan Bradley – who led all scorers with 26 points – and a bucket by senior forward Paul Sellers with just under 2 minutes left in the half.
But Jonesboro closed the quarter with back-to-back three pointers by Petty and Casey Wells, and held a 29-27 lead at intermission.
The teams slugged it out on the third quarter, with either a tie or a lead change taking place 11 different times during the period. The Cardinals got a little breathing room after another trey by Wells made it 40-36 with less than a minute left in the quarter. But lightning-quick senior guard D’Anthony Franklin shook free and knocked down a deep three-pointer at the buzzer to pull North Clayton to within one, 40-39, heading into the fourth quarter.
However, Jonesboro went on a 14-3 run at the start of the period, punctuated by one of Okeke’s five dunks – this one off a lob pass from Petty – to assume command for good. North Clayton would get no closer than six points the rest of the way.
“[Okeke] was a man for us tonight,” Maehlman said of the Winthorp commit, who finished with 14 points, 16 rebounds and 6 blocks, in addition to forcing Eagle shooters to alter several shots during the game. “He’s going to be an unbelievable player on the next level.”
But before the eight seniors on the Jonesboro roster, led by Okeke, Petty, Wells and Sutton (who will sign with Tennessee to play football next week) leave the program, they will make a serious run for a state title. The Cardinals have advanced to the semi finals the last two seasons, where they were beaten both times by four-time champion Miller Grove, now competing in AAAAA.
“I’m usually a low-key guy when it comes to things like this,” Maehlman said. “But I’ve seen pretty much everyone out there, and honestly, if we get some lucky bounces here and there, we’ve got a legitimate shot.”
Jonesboro (62) – Patrick Petty 15, Chukedubem Okeke 14, Casey Wells 13, Cameron Sutton 12, Deantre Mack 5, Daniel Peace 2, John Walker 1
North Clayton (51) – Stefan Bradley 26, D’Anthony Franklin 9, Cedric Campbell 8, Marquez Abernathy 3, Tracy Hector 2, Reginald Scurry 2, Devin Lewis 1