Photo by Jerry Jackson
Jonesboro guard Victoria Florence (1), whose hot hand helped the Lady Cardinals win the Region 4-AAAA champion, drives past Forest Park’s Raven Wynn during the title game on Friday.
Highs and lows. Ebbs and flows. Unexpected heroes. Juiced-up fans responding to the intensity displayed by both teams.
And a bonus round to boot.
Forest Park and the Jonesboro — Region 4-AAAA’s season-long heavyweights — put on a clinic as to how a championship game should be played, as both teams dueled to a draw after regulation before Jonesboro scored all 10 points in the extra frame to defeat the defending region champions 55-45 in overtime.
The victory allowed the Lady Cardinals to hoist their first region title trophy in four years, but it may have also given coach Michael House’s squad the heart of a champion in addition to the hardware of a champion.
“Boy, we came out at first in this game and looked like we hadn’t played basketball all year, but I love the way we rallied in the second quarter,” House said. “I loved the way we elevated our intensity.”
This one actually looked as though it had the potential to get real ugly for Jonesboro, as Forest Park completely stymied the Lady Cardinals defensively, pitching a 12-0 shutout at the end of the first quarter. The injury-plagued, yet seasoned Lady Panthers seemed amped, and ready to avenge their 52-39 home loss the previous time these teams played.
And this is when Jonesboro would press the panic button, right?
“After that first quarter, we didn’t rattle,” House said. “We just continued to be positive. I kept telling my girls that we were still in the game. We went back to focusing on the things we had been preaching all year long — the fundamentals, the details, the little things.”
But the one big thing that helped Jonesboro to recover was the suddenly hot-shooting performance of Victoria Florence. The guard caught fire in the second quarter, drilling four 3-pointers on her way to 14 points in the period. Her last 3-pointer gave Jonesboro its first lead at 24-22 with less than a minute to play in the first half.
Count Forest Park coach Steven Cole among those who were not surprised by Florence’s hot streak.
“She’s shot well before,” Cole said. “We saw her hit 33 in a big game against North Clayton, so we knew she could shoot the ball. We missed some defensive assignments on her and she capitalized.”
Florence’s game-high 21 points, coupled with House applying the same full-court press that gave the Lady Panthers fits in their Jan. 20 loss to Jonesboro, gave the Lady Cardinals momentum headed into the third quarter, despite Forest Park clinging to a 26-24 halftime lead.
“Victoria put the team on her back tonight,” House said. “She played with the rhythm, poise and flow we’ve been trying to get her to play with all season. She gets my vote for MVP.”
The two teams traded punches into the third quarter, until Florence knocked down another 3-pointer to pull Jonesboro within one at the 2:58 mark. After a Forest Park turnover, Jonesboro’s Ashley Hand buried a 3-pointer from the wing that put the Cardinals back on top 34-32 with 2:02 left in the third. Florence swished a pull-up jumper in the lane to give Jonesboro a 36-32 advantage going into the fourth quarter.
After extending her team’s lead to five points, Forest Park’s Ashlee Cole got hot. Cole scored seven straight points to pull Forest Park back to within one with 1:40 left in regulation. Shortly afterward, forward Tamara Brewster hit one of two free throws to knot the score up at 45.
Joneboro’s Kimberly Dawkins had a chance to win it in regulation, but missed on two put-back attempts, sending the game into overtime.
Forest Park experienced a role reversal in overtime, where the Lady Panthers duplicated Jonesboro’s scoreless first-quarter performance by failing to sink one shot in the extra period. A combination of foul trouble — Cole, Brewster and starting freshman post player Breasia McElrath all fouled out in overtime — and fatigue seemed to seal the Panthers fate.
“We just came up short tonight,” said Cole, whose team drops to 20-6 overall. “When you get tired, you start to make mistakes. But we’ll be fine. Our morale is up because we’ve got a home game coming up in the state tournament. There are a lot of teams that aren’t going to be playing next week.”
House said his team has perhaps earned a bit of a break before preparations for the state tournament begin.
“We’re going to go back and continue to build upon the detail and attention to little things,” he said. “And maybe now we can get a little rest as well.”
Cole paced Forest Park with 15 points, while Raven Wynn chipped in with 13. Brianna Benson aided Jonesboro with 12 points.