By Brian Paglia
DULUTH - The Lady Cardinals jostled and scrapped on the floor, willingly throwing their bodies into the fray. For one final shot to tie the game, they would do anything.
So in went senior Joi Holyfield, following senior Chanee Key's miss. In went sophomore Kayla Dowdell, pouring on one more of her passionate plays that rekindled Jonesboro's hopes. In went the other seniors, Drameka Griggs and Sharmesia Smith. With their high school careers hinging on the moment, this was no time for timidity.
Though Jonesboro rose from the pile without possession of the ball, they had already secured the respect of their opponent and the basketball community. Few expected Jonesboro to be on this stage, pushing a venerable Fayette County program to its limits in the Lady Cardinals' 43-41 loss in the Final Four of the state basketball tournament Wednesday at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
"I think we earned our respect," Jonesboro coach Jimmy Fields said. "If we didn't, then there's something wrong with the people watching the ballgame. I honestly think that my girls did not quit at all."
Surely most expected what they witnessed in the first half, when Jonesboro (30-2) found itself down 31-15 and thoroughly bewildered. Already they had endured a struggling school system, the defection of players frightened by that system's loss of accreditation, the slights that ensued, not to mention injuries and a confounding anonymity. But here was a new one: trailing at halftime, to one of the premier teams in the country.
And so in the second half, they set about earning the respect they so coveted.
"Honestly, no one expected to us to win," Griggs said. "We didn't win, but I feel like everyone didn't think we were going to go out like that. A two-point loss isn't bad. I feel like our team will be respected now."
That was the Lady Cardinals' motivation all season, and it fueled them to a 29-game winning streak, a region 4-AAAA championship, the No. 3 ranking in the Gasports.com Coaches Poll and the program's first appearance ever in the Final Four. Jonesboro recognized its quest for admiration was inexorably linked to those accomplishments
"We didn't have any chance. We weren't even supposed to be here at all," Holyfield said. "So to be
down and only lose by two, I'm proud of them. I'm proud of myself. I'm proud of my whole team. It was a great season."
Dowdell's Passion Is A Spark
With his team trailing by 16 points at halftime, Fields approached the locker room, only to be startled by the sound of one player screaming, exhorting her teammates to play better. He found it wasn't any from his group of four seniors. It was sophomore Kayla Dowdell.
"I thought they were getting in a fight," Fields said. "But she was in there saying, 'Come on, ya'll.' You know, pepping them up. And I had to go in there real quick. But I found she was in there jumping around, pumping them up and that's why she played the whole second half."
Indeed, Dowdell stayed on the floor for the entirety of Jonesboro's remarkable second half comeback. She finished with four points, five rebounds and two emphatic blocks, but it was her energy that helped ignite the Lady Cardinals.
"I saw a big passion from her that I hadn't seen all year," Fields said. "Early in the season, she would get a rebound here and there. But she was hungry tonight."
For One Night, Maehlman Joins Staff
Fields invited Cardinals boys basketball coach Dan Maehlman to join his staff on the bench for the game.
"It was a cool thing for him to come down and sit on the bench with us," Fields said.
As Jonesboro's athletic director, he felt too removed from the team while at the Elite 8 in Fort Valley State. As the volleyball coach, Maehlman coached much of the team during volleyball seasons. So it was especially significant for him to experience the night from the floor.
"I sat up in the stands for the Elite 8 game. I just didn't like that feeling," Maehlman said. "I wanted to be there to support the girls. A lot of these girls play volleyball for me. They mean a lot to me."