By Brian Paglia
There's an obvious way Stockbridge's boys basketball team could handle its recent streak of losing eight of its last 10 games, a development that few could have predicted. The Tigers could have panicked at the first sign of issues, wondering where their once promising season went.
Instead, Stockbridge coach Duane Kelley and the Tigers (13-10, 8-7 Region 4-AAAA) maintain that they are still motivated going into Friday night's contest against North Clayton (20-2, 10-2). In fact, they recognize the opportunity that exists in facing the region leader.
"It would be big for us," Stockbridge senior guard Chris Davis said. "It would give us a lot of confidence going into the region playoffs."
And yet, in Kelley's assessment of the Eagles, he finds little worth scrutinizing.
"What are they not good at? They're 20-2," Kelley said. "They play well together. They shoot well. They have big guys on the post that are big and aggressive and can rebound. They play good defense.
"But what I've noticed is their chemistry is good. They have good team chemistry during the game."
Team chemistry was one factor many in the preseason considered Stockbridge a favorite to contend for the automatic state tournament spot earned by the region regular season champion. Stockbridge lost just one starter from last season and returned two of the region's best talents in junior forward Dante Campbell and Davis, the reigning Henry County player of the year.
Stockbridge's hot start seemed to validate its preseason expectations. The Tigers won nine in a row after losing its season-opener to Luella without Kelley on the bench. Through December, the Tigers were 11-2 overall and in first place in the region.
Stockbridge was winning just as it expected to, but the manner in which the Tigers disposed of their opponents only fueled their reputation. Against region opponents, Stockbridge outscored teams by an average of 16.5 points a game.
But since January, the Tigers are 2-10 overall and 2-7 in the region.
Kelley said the good news is Stockbridge understands what its greatest malady is: Turnovers.
"Basketball is a funny thing," Kelley said. "We're in every game, it's just we don't finish at the end. I wish I had a cure for it, but all we know is hard work. We're just going to keep working at it and try to minimize our mistakes."
North Clayton and Stockbridge's last meeting exposed the Tigers for their to tendency to implode in late-game situations. That night the Tigers trailed by just one with 1:38 left in the game until four straight turnovers gave North Clayton an opportunity to earn a 75-63 win.
Tuesday night against Jonesboro, the Tigers trailed by just three with 1:14 left. But two straight turnovers wasted too much time. Stockbridge was forced to foul and the Cardinals made their free throws to close out a 63-59 win.
As the losses continue to mount, Kelley insisted the season isn't lost, nor has Stockbridge altered its postseason outlook.
"Everybody's frustrated," Kelley said. "Instead of internalizing it, I'd like to think my kids are mentally tough enough that we're going to take it out on our next opponent."
Stockbridge's plan remains the same: Win the region championship and advance deep into the state tournament. After all, the Tigers were undefeated in the region and ranked in the state at one point this season.
Now, the Tigers said this rough stretch may work to their advantage.
"I feel it makes us more dangerous," Davis said. "Teams are starting to underestimate us now. I think if we just go into the region playoffs and play hard, we'll come out on top."