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Region 4-AAAA powers Lovejoy, North Clayton collide

Photo by Derrick Mahone
Lovejoy coach Rick Francis said the players he started the season with “held the fort down” until the football players were through with their state-championship bid. Now, they’re meshing and Francis tabs them “the team to beat, I think.”

Photo by Derrick Mahone Lovejoy coach Rick Francis said the players he started the season with “held the fort down” until the football players were through with their state-championship bid. Now, they’re meshing and Francis tabs them “the team to beat, I think.”

Lovejoy’s basketball season can be divided into two parts: What the team did while the football squad was enjoying an extended run to the state-championship game, and what the team has done since.

Before Dec. 17, the Wildcats were in hold-on-and-survive mode. From that day on, however, they’ve been in rev-it-up-and-go gear, winners of seven straight as North Clayton prepares to pay them a visit tonight.

“I know they’re going to come out and play hard,” Lovejoy coach Rick Francis said.

But now the football players (Jermaine Hough, Arshad Jackson, JuMichael Ramos and Alejandro Bennifield) are starting to mesh with the start-of-the-season players (Justin Tuoyo, Widley Guerrier, Mike Harden and Ryan Watkins — “those guys did a phenomenal job holding the fort down until the troops got here,” Francis said.)

They’ve meshed so well, the way Francis sees it, and has told his players, “You guys are the team to beat, I think.”

The numbers won’t argue. At 12-3 overall, and 8-0 in Region 4-AAAA, the Wildcats sit atop the heap. But Jonesboro and North Clayton are hard on their heels, each at 7-1 in the region, and Francis is wary.

“Whenever we play, whoever we play, we get their best game,” the Lovejoy coach said. “We don’t underestimate anybody. If you step on the court, you’re a major threat.”

North Clayton is well able to give anybody it plays a tough game, led by high-scoring forward Marcus Hunt. The last time these two teams met was in last season’s Region 4-AAAA tournament, when Lovejoy prevailed 53-52.

Besides Hunt, the Eagles have gotten a big lift from the star of their second unit, Dennis Johnson.

“Honestly, he’s the one who has given us the spark, especially if we’re pressing,” North Clayton coach Martisse Troup said. “Definitely, he leaves it on the floor and intensifies practice as well.”

The Eagles lost a high-profile showdown 51-48 last week against Jonesboro in which their free-throw shooting let them down. But in bouncing back for a 71-68 victory against Mount Zion on Saturday, Troup was a lot happier with what he saw taking place at the line, not to mention Monday at practice.

And with Forest Park and Riverdale on their horizon, the Eagles are going to need to fortify themselves.

“It’s just another game on the schedule for us, but our goal is to finish first in the region so we don’t have to play till the semifinals (in the Region 4-AAAA tournament),” Troup said.

To get there, the Eagles are going to have to hit their free throws consistently, not just here or there.

“Our team goal is to shoot at least 70 percent, which is very hard for a high school team,” Troup said. “Right now, we’re in the 50s.”

Tonight’s game is likely to pivot around two questions: Can Lovejoy contain Hunt, who put on a dunking clinic in the first half against Mount Zion, propelling the Eagles to a twentysomething-point halftime lead before they hung on? And can North Clayton challenge shot-blocking sensation Justin Tuoyo, the center piece of Lovejoy’s defense-first philosophy?

“We’re going to be ready for the challenge,” Troup said.

North Clayton at Lovejoy

Time: 7:30 p.m.

Records/rankings: North Clayton is 9-4 overall and 7-1 in Region 4-AAAA. Lovejoy is 12-3, 8-0.

TV: Comcast

Probable starters: North Clayton — PG Dionte Agard (6-1, Sr.), SG Stafan Bradley (6-0, Jr.), SF Marcus Hunt (6-6, Sr.), PF Joseph Stevenson (6-5, Sr.) PF Devin Lewis (6-4, Jr.). Lovejoy — PG Jermaine Hough (5-10, Sr.), SG DeAngelo Anthony (6-0, Jr.), SF Ryan Watkins (6-1, Sr.), PF Widley Guerrier (6-4, Sr.), Justin Tuoyo (6-9, Sr.)