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North Clayton boys win first region title since ’93

Photo by Jerry Jackson
Jonesboro’s Chukedubem Okeke swats at a shot by North Clayton’s Devin Lewis (23). The Eagles earned their first region championship since 1993 by defeating Jonesboro 57-50.

Photo by Jerry Jackson Jonesboro’s Chukedubem Okeke swats at a shot by North Clayton’s Devin Lewis (23). The Eagles earned their first region championship since 1993 by defeating Jonesboro 57-50.

North Clayton’s boys basketball team lurked through the regular season, peeking its collective head out long enough to hand Lovejoy its only Region 4-AAAA defeat, then went back into hiding.

A loss to Riverdale, two to Forest Park and two to the team it saw again Friday provided just enough cover for the Eagles to do what hadn’t been done at North Clayton since any of them were born.

A fourth seed, theoretically, isn’t supposed to win the region tournament. But the Eagles don’t care much for theory, unless they can disprove it — which is why they’re going to the Class AAAA tournament as a No. 1 seed.

The Eagles climbed out of 4-AAAA’s back seat and took the wheel, defeating Jonesboro 57-50 in overtime at Tri-Cities High for their first region championship since 1993.

“It feels real good,” said North Clayton guard Dionte Agard. “We worked hard after losing two in a row to Forest Park. I told my teammates, I’d rather lose them now because I knew in the end we’d be victorious.”

North Clayton (17-10) won with defense, disrupting Jonesboro shooters into missing many shots they normally make.

“Defense was going to be the key tonight and we played much better defense as a team,” Eagles coach Martisse Troup said.

From the time North Clayton ran off 15 unanswered points, going from a 22-19 deficit midway through the second quarter to a 34-22 lead after Stafan Bradley’s 3-pointer opened the third, it was the Eagles’ game to lose.

Surprisingly enough, they almost did just that.

They led 47-42 with 1:17 left in regulation and never sank the free throws that could’ve settled matters without overtime. That gave the Cardinals (23-4) enough breathing room for Casey Wells to hit a big 3-pointer with 25 seconds left, for Chukedubem Okeke to dunk with 14 seconds remaining and for Cameron Sutton to make two tying free throws with nine seconds to go.

Agard missed two free throws with seven seconds left and Wells had a chance to win it with an improbable, long-distance 3-pointer as time expired.

It drew nothing but glass to the right of the rim. North Clayton hearts were permitted to resume beating.

Even after stealing the ball from Jonesboro’s Daniel Peace at the beginning of overtime and blowing the layup, Agard maintained his confident outlook. Jonesboro returned the favor by missing five consecutive free throws and North Clayton assumed control. With 22 seconds left, Agard strode to the free-throw line again and made two for a six-point lead.

Ballgame.

“I knew we were going to pull it out,” he said. “My team told me to keep my head up and I hit the two when it counted.”

Marcus Hunt led the Eagles with 19 points, Agard had 12 and Bradley added 10.

Wells scored 20 points and Sutton added 13 to lead Jonesboro, which did its best to brush off defeat in favor of the bigger picture — the state tournament.

“We just didn’t play well,” Jonesboro coach Dan Maehlman said. “That’s over with now. There’s no reason to be depressed. We were 23-4, third in the state and I told them I’m proud of them. We lost — big deal. The region championship, they (North Clayton) got it. Now we start working on what we wanted all along.”

Troup said he wouldn’t be surprised if all Region 4-AAAA teams did damage in the tournament. His Eagles started showing what they hope are their true colors when they knocked off top-seeded Lovejoy 64-57 in the semifinals Thursday. Beating Jonesboro for the first time in three tries was the icing

“Our region is tough,” he said. “I expect Jonesboro to go far, just like Lovejoy and us.”