Photo by Heather Middleton
By Derrick Mahone
Jonesboro boys and Forest Park girls basketball teams are the two hottest teams in the Southern Crescent as the state playoffs begin.
Forest Park (22-5) has yet to lose to an in-state team this season. The sixth-ranked Lady Panthers are riding a 14-game winning streak into Friday's first round home playoff game against Ware County.
Jonesboro, the fifth-ranked team in Class AAAA, will carry a 13-game win streak into a home playoff game against Greenbrier on Saturday.
In addition to the long win streaks, the two teams have added region championships to this season's resume.
"It has been great winning 13 straight games," said Jonesboro guard Rasham Suarez, the region player of the year. "Winning the region is great, but we think it is just the beginning of some great things for us.
We are looking at the big picture of winning it all."
In the finals of the Region 4-AAAA tournament, Jonesboro avenged an earlier loss to No. 8 Lovejoy with a 51-36 victory at Mundy's Mill.
Lovejoy won the earlier meeting 53-44 on Dec. 7 as the Wildcats climbed as high as third in the weekly Prepcountry.com/GACA coaches poll.
Since that loss to Lovejoy, the Cardinals have won 14 of their last 15 games.
If Jonesboro forward James White had to name one game in the season that became a turning point for the Cardinals, he says that the championship game of the Puerto Rico tournament would be it.
Despite a one-point loss in the closing seconds, White said the team gained a world of confidence. At that time, Carmen Sol High School in Puerto Rico was considered the top team in the country.
"After that game, we felt that we could compete with anybody," said White, an Arkansas-Little Rock signee. "We have won as a team. Right now, the whole focus is that we don't want our season to end. We are not ready to go home."
Prior to Saturday's loss, Lovejoy had won three straight, including a one-point win over North Clayton in the region semifinals. The Wildcats had won 12 of their last 13 games since a loss to South Atlanta in a holiday tournament game on New Year's Day.
North Clayton has been in somewhat of a tailspin since the beginning of February. The Eagles (15-13) won their first two games at the start of the month, but have now dropped seven of their last eight as they play at Richmond Hill this weekend.
North Clayton's only win was against Forest Park in the quarterfinals of the region tournament to clinch a state
Forest Park girls needed overtime and seven free throws to defeated North Clayton in the championship game.
The Lady Panthers only shot 28 percent from the field in the win.
Regardless of the region tournament outcomes, teams now get a new start at the state tournament, however, one slip now and the season is over.
Suarez, a Georgia Southern signee, said the time for celebration is over for the Cardinals.
"We are happy with the region championship, but that celebration is over," he said. "You have to focus on your next opponent because if you don't, you will be sitting at home next week."