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In up-and-down season, Tigers reach new high

From Staff Reports

In its first game back from Christmas break, Stockbridge fell to Jonesboro on a heartbreaking foul call that put the Cardinals at the line down by one with no time left on the clock. Stanley Clark made two free throws for the win, Jonesboro celebrated and the Tigers walked solemnly to the locker room.

Stockbridge coach Duane Kelley felt then that that play would have ramifications later in the season. His prescient instincts seem right on after the news that Region 4-AAAA leader Alcovy forfeited two games, wins against Stockbridge and Forest Park, for using an ineligible player earlier this season.

Coupled with the Tigers' 47-44 upset victory at Alcovy Tuesday, suddenly Stockbridge (12-8, 7-4) ascends to second place behind Jonesboro (11-7, 8-2), and they would be just a half-game back if not for some last-second theatrics.

"That makes that shot that more painful," Kelley said. "I knew that would come back to mean something. That's why I lost it after the game."

Alcovy's forfeits simply compound the erratic nature of Stockbridge's season. Each of the Tigers' crowning achievements have been followed by disappointment. A 5-1 start preceded five losses in its next seven games. The heartbreaker against Jonesboro was followed three days later by a win over then region-leader North Clayton. The Alcovy win came three days after Stockbridge lost by 19 points to Mt. Zion, who the Tigers beat by 21 in early December.

With every sign of a potential breakthrough, Stockbridge seems to stumble. Yet with each stumble, the Tigers find a way to regroup. Kelley believes the inconsistency lies in his group's inexperience. Only one starter, forward Kevin Burke, was a starter last season.

"I think the biggest problem is experience," Kelley said. "They're finally beginning to grasp the concept of you've got to bring it every night. Sometimes we're not as mentally sharp as we need to be only because we don't have that experience to endure a full season, because they've never played a full season."

So whether the win over Alcovy is a catalyst for a stretch run remains to be seen.

"It has the potential," Kelley said, "because they're finally understanding the mental side of the game, that there's an intellectual side of the game. They're starting to understand that concept. That could be a big win."

- Brian Paglia

Griffin's offense grows

Jonesboro coach Dan Maehlman knew the Cardinals' eventual 62-57 victory over North Clayton Tuesday would come down to feats of hustle and resolve. Neither team has one dynamic scoring threat an opponent must account for, and in those games it often comes down to a collective will, a propensity for one team to corral key rebounds, trap loose balls and bully for three-point plays.

And yet on that night, it seemed two stars emerged when others struggled: North Clayton's Jeffrey Newberry and Jonesboro's Jason Griffin. While Eagles guard Zach Bradley struggled to find his rhythm, Newberry finished with 25 points. While Cardinals guard Stanley Clark fought with his shooting touch throughout the first three quarters, Griffin's athleticism helped Jonesboro withstand North Clayton's best efforts.

Maehlman asked Griffin before the season began to accept a greater role offensively. He was a defensive role-player a year ago, the one Maehlman often called upon to lock down an opponents' best scorer. But as one of only three returning players with varsity experience, Maehlman challenged Griffin to mature into a complete player that could make a difference at both ends of the court.

"He told me I've got to step up my offensive game, as well as my defensive game," Griffin said. "So when my time came, I had to step up to the plate."

Griffin gave Jonesboro the emotional charge it needed every time North Clayton threatened. Three times he drew fouls on athletic drives and backdoor layups, though he converted only one three-point opportunity. He finished with 20 points and six rebounds.

And of course, he drew the toughest defensive assignment in the final crucial moments of the game.

"This year we're asking him to add that offensive part to his game," Maehlman said, "along with playing defense and rebounding, because he's our best defender. He's probably the most athletic kid in the whole school, and when he comes ready to play, he's a heck of a player."

- Brian Paglia

As Nwapara goes, so do Lady Eagles

It didn't take long for North Clayton center Crystal Nwapara to make her presence known against Jonesboro Tuesday. Nwapara scored six points in the Lady Eagles' 8-0 run to open the game and stun the Lady Cardinals.

Though Jonesboro eventually came through with a 54-31 victory, Nwapara showed just how indispensible she is for North Clayton (11-8, 6-5 in Region 4-AAAA). Of the team's 31 points, Nwapara scored 24 to go along with 12 rebounds.

Nwapara might have scored more if the Lady Eagles' primary ballhandler, point guard Marshuna Anderson, didn't go down with an injury early the first half.

"Crystal is the best," North Clayton coach Kimleon Turner said. "She's a great down-low scorer. If we can get somebody to consistently get her the ball with good passes, we'll be alright. She does carry our team, and when she doesn't have a good game, we probably will lose."

- Brian Paglia

Lady Cardinals press the issue

Jonesboro coach Jimmy Fields attributed that dominating run by North Clayton to his decision to have his team play in a 2-3 zone defense, something that Lady Cardinals have spent little time running.

At the end of the 8-0 run Lady Eagles run, Fields called a timeout and had No. 7 Jonesboro (17-1, 9-0 in Region 4-AAAA) go back into its patented full court press. The Lady Cardinals promptly went on a 15-0 run and never trailed again.

"I take responsibility for that," Fields said, "because we played in a little 2-3 zone, and we normally don't play a lot of 2-3 zone. But the key was to press and drop into the zone. But we weren't hitting any shots to get in the press. So we just picked them up in man and started putting pressure on them."

- Brian Paglia