By Brian Paglia
It never used to be like this. Before Final Four appearances, before back-to-back Elite Eight showings, before these current basketball times in Clayton County when an opponent notices that Jonesboro is next on the schedule, and that means something different than any other team, the Cardinals were the laughingstock of the county, coach Dan Maehlman said.
But they fast became the team that inspired the best effort from other teams, no matter the record or talent. Even this season, one in which Jonesboro faced uncertain prospects with only three contributors from last year returning, the Cardinals are finding no off-nights and few comfortable wins.
This time Jonesboro endured another strong performance from a visiting team and prevailed for a 62-57 victory over North Clayton in a Region 4-AAAA game Tuesday night.
The Cardinals (11-7, 8-2) have played 13 games decided by less than 10 points, going 8-5 in those games.
"We've built a pretty good tradition," Maehlman said. "We used to be the laughingstock of Clayton County. You've got to realize that everytime someone comes in your gym, or you go there, they're trying to stick it to you as hard as they can, embarass you, because you're wearing that thing across your chest that says Jonesboro.
"And it didn't used to be like that, but it is now. It's a tribute to how hard these kids have worked over the last six or seven years."
North Clayton (11-8, 6-5) made the Cardinals work hard until the very end when Jeffrey Newberry (25 points) hit a 3 with 15 seconds left to make it 61-55. The Eagles guarded the inbounds well and forced a 5-second violation, extending North Clayton's chances.
But Maehlman assigned his best defender, Jason Griffin, to guard Newberry. That was Griffin's specialty last season. Though he led the Cardinals with 20 points on this night, perhaps his biggest contribution was suffocating Newberry in those final seconds, harassing him.
Newberry got the inbounds and dribbled in the corner, trying to find space for a shot. Griffin stuck to him, and Newberry stepped out.
"Coach told me if I'm one of the best defenders on the team, I'm a take that role," Griffin said. "Whoever he wants to put me on, I'll do it."
Three other Cardinals scored in double figures. Stanley Clark overcame a tough shooting night to score 13 points and make key free throws down the stretch. Jesse Gardner had 12 points off the bench, and Antonio Gardner had 11 points and nine rebounds.
North Clayton's other dynamic guard Zach Bradley struggled most of the night, finishing with 10 points. Clarence Jackson scored 12, but he fouled out with about five minutes left.
"It makes a difference when he's not in the game as far as the hustling and rebounding," North Clayton coach Martisse Troup said. "You know, the spark for the whole team."
· Jonesboro 54, North Clayton 31 (Girls): Even as the Lady Eagles scored the game's first eight points, Lady Cardinals coach Jimmy Fields never panicked. Even when the only way for Jonesboro to scrap its way back was for Drameka Griggs to get to the foul line, Fields trusted his team would respond.
"I think we took their best punch the first quarter," Fields said. "I didn't panic, and my biggest thing was just to make sure my girls didn't panic."
They didn't for too long. Griggs finished with 16 points, Joi Holyfield scored 14 and No. 3 Jonesboro (17-1, 9-0 in Region 4-AAAA) won its 16th consecutive game.
Jasmine Manning added 12 points.
Crystal Nwapara led North Clayton (11-8, 6-5) with 21 points and 12 rebounds.
"I didn't have anybody off the bench to help handle the ball," North Clayton coach Kimleon Turner said. "Turnovers killed us, but we didn't show up in the second half."