By Brian Paglia
At the end of each of Jonesboro's theatrical wins last week, ones capped with a buzzer-beating 3 and game-winning free throws, the roar at the final horn from players and fans filled the Cardinals gym with palpable elation. The Cardinals had won another game, and given those in attendance a show in the process.
But Jonesboro coach Dan Maehlman fumed during those wins. His Cardinals have tested his nerves, and their own luck, too many times this season. That's what made a dominating 68-38 victory over Mt. Zion at home Tuesday night in a Region 4-AAAA game so satisfying.
"That's the best game we've played all year from beginning to end," Maehlman said.
Jonesboro (9-6, 6-1) has been no stranger to dramatic endings this season. They've had eight games decided by three points or less, two of those decided in overtime. The most recent theatrics came on two game-winning free throws with no time left against Stockbridge and a 3-pointer in the waning seconds of a victory over Ola.
Maehlman knew his team was young in playing time this season, with seniors Jason Griffin and Cliff Crews the only returning players with varsity experience - and between them they averaged just six points. The rest Maehlman gathered from junior varsity and other schools. So he anticipated it would take time for this team to grow.
"Our experience as far as on-the-court experience is low," Maehlman said. "I knew it would take a little while. I didn't know it would take this long into the season."
Amongst that inexperienced group has come a reliable core of players, all of which contributed on this night. Mario Cummings, normally one of the Cardinals' biggest outside shooting threats, drove more against Mt. Zion (5-8, 2-6) for his 10 points. Six-foot-eight forward Antonio Gardner had just five points, but he also had five rebounds and two steals.
But none have matched the ascent of guard Stanley Clark. The dramatic free throws and 3-pointer last week came from his hands and solidified him as the team's go-to scorer. He showed he's fully embraced that role with his game-high 23 points.
Griffin added 14. Reggie Mitchell led the Bulldogs with 11 points.
"Tonight we took a very big stride in the right direction," Maehlman said. "Still got a long way to go, and the one thing I've got to make sure they do is stay within themselves. I told them, 'Don't go home and come to practice and think we're just going to go through the motions, that automatically you're good.' We're not. We've still got a long way to go."
·Jonesboro 45, Mt. Zion 36 (Girls): The talk within the halls of Jonesboro High School Tuesday was the Lady Cardinals' ascent to No. 3 in the Class AAAA GaSports.com Coaches Poll that was released yesterday.
But after a performance far from par against the Lady Bulldogs in a Region 4-AAAA game Tuesday, Jonesboro coach Jimmy Fields talked more about his team's need to focus.
"They got caught up in that No. 3 ranking," Fields said. "They caught up in that. That was the big news around school.
That kind of had a little bit to do with it, but we're not making any excuses. We played a pretty good ballclub."
Mt. Zion (7-7, 4-4) held Jonesboro (14-1, 7-0) to just six points in the third quarter before the Lady Cardinals pulled away in the fourth quarter.
Joi Holyfield had a game-high 17 points for Jonesboro. Drameka Griggs had 13 points, nine rebounds, six assists and four steals.
Freshman Precious Person led the Lady Bulldogs with 12 points and four blocks.