By Rory Sharrock
Just like a fine-tuned car that's been sitting out in the frigid night air, the Jonesboro Lady Cardinals started Friday's game cold and dry.
But it didn't take long for the juices to flow through the engine as Jonesboro turned a 9-6 first-quarter lead into a 61-31 rout over the host Lady Bulldogs of Mt. Zion.
With the victory, Jonesboro improves to 12-4 and 4-1 in Region 4A-AAAA.
"It was a good win. We came out sluggish and I think it was because of the New Year's Day festivities, but in the second half, we played better basketball," said Lady Cards' head coach Jamie Horton. "The second half of the season is going to be make-or-break because from here on out, everything is a pretty much a region game. This kind of sets us up, but we still have a lot of work to do."
Junior guard Joi Holyfield scored a game-high 15 points, including a desperation heave from midcourt that banked-in off the window as time expired in the third quarter.
"We came out bad in the first quarter, but in the second quarter we picked it up and proved that we're No. 1," Holyfield said. "My teammates and I are going to continue to work hard and this game gave us a tremendous amount of confidence."
Jonesboro's aggressive man-to-man defense and break-neck speed running in transition proved to be too much for Mt. Zion to handle from beginning to end. After its slow start, Jonesboro began to mash the gas pedal and led 29-16 at the half, erasing all doubt for a potential upset in front of the exuberant Mt. Zion crowd.
Following a weeklong break, the Lady Cards return to action Jan. 11 for a highly-anticipated contest against North Clayton, which ranks No. 1 (AAAA) in the gasports.com coach's poll.
Mt. Zion's defeat Friday night snaps a season-high two-game winning streak, dropping the Lady Bulldogs to 6-8 and 0-4 in league play.
The team looks to bounce back against Salem Saturday at 4 p.m.
In boys action, there was a game within the game as Jonesboro head coach Dan Maehlman and Mt. Zion head coach Chris Jones matched wits in a chess-match, in which the Cardinals claimed checkmate after edging out the Bulldogs 35-31.
Maehlman countered Jones' box and triangle sets by pressing and milking the clock beginning in the third quarter to walk out of the gym with the victory.
"Chris (Jones) is a good coach and I figured we were going to see a box-1 or a triangle-2 before it was all over," said Maehlman. "The adjustments we made were to try and hit (Brandon) Hosley free up top with some picks. Our goal at halftime was to get the lead and as soon as we got the lead, we were going to pull them out of it, and that's what we did."
Mt. Zion's game plan seemed to be working to perfection after leading 12-5 after the first quarter.
Later, Jonesboro managed to find an opening in the zone defense and tied the score at 22 going into halftime.
However, in the that pivotal third quarter, the game began to slow down to a snail's pace. The Cardinals outscored the Bulldogs 9-4 in the third to go up 31-26.
In the final frame, both teams traded their share of turnovers and made baskets. With Mt. Zion trailing 33-31, and 40.5 seconds left on the clock, Bulldogs guard Gabriel Johnson fed an entry-pass to small forward Rummell Victor, but the ball was mishandled and dribbled out of bounds.
On the next possession, after drawing an intentional foul, Jonesboro turned the ball over on the inbound pass. But Mt. Zion gave it right back and later fouled Hendric Clark.
The senior went to the charity strip with the game on the line and showed he had ice in his veins as he nailed both shots to clinch victory.
"I did it last year in the region championship against Griffin, so it was nothing," Clark said.
Joneboro improved to 14-3 and is currently ranked seventh (AAAA) in the latest coach's poll.