By Brian Paglia
Georgia high school girls basketball fans predicted last summer that a powerful program from Fayetteville would test the legitimacy of an anonymous team from Jonesboro in the state tournament.
If the Lady Cardinals were ever going to earn the respect they deserved, they said, they would have to play the nationally-lauded Fayette County team.
Opportunity knocks for Jonesboro (30-1) today, when it faces the Lady Tigers of Fayette County (30-0) at The Arena at Gwinnett Center in the Final Four of the Class AAAA girls state basketball tournament at 7 p.m., an opportunity for the Lady Cardinals to end the incessant debate over which is the best girls basketball team in the state.
"I'm sick of it," Jonesboro first-year coach Jimmy Fields said. "I just don't want my kids to get caught up in the hype. I want them to stay focused on the moment at hand."
Fields emphasized the same message before Jonesboro's 60-40 victory over Hephzibah in the Elite Eight at Fort Valley State University. The day before, at practice, he told them there would be no Fayette County-Jonesboro clash without concentrating on the present task.
Such was the mantra throughout an entire season, one that featured a Region 4-AAAA championship, a 29-game winning streak and state-wide recognition.
But the Lady Cardinals still felt slighted. They saw Fayette County picked among the 50 best teams in the country in the ESPN RISE Fab 50 national poll. They saw Fayette County senior guard Tessah Holt on ESPN SportsCenter highlights two weeks ago. They read Internet message boards proclaiming the Lady Tigers' superiority and predicting a state championship was inevitable.
"It pushed us, actually, to prove them wrong," Jonesboro senior Chanee Key said. "It gave us motivation, basically, telling us that, OK, people are doubting us, but we know what we can do and how far we can go."
So they set about removing the doubt. Behind returning seniors Key, Drameka Griggs, Joi Holyfield and Sharmesia Smith, the Lady Cardinals built off their loss last season in the first round of the state tournament.
They built a team that finally has a chance to earn the praise they covet.
"I'm excited for the girls," Jonesboro assistant coach Leon Samuel said. "It's been predicted since last summer: Fayette County versus Jonesboro, and of course they picked Fayette County. So we're anxious. We're ready to play."