Photo by Jerry Jackson: Jonesboro guard Cameron Sutton (left) defends Lovejoy’s Ryan Watkins in an all-Clayton County Class AAAA quarterfinals showdown Friday at Fort Valley State. Jonesboro won 58-49.
FORT VALLEY — They looked injured. Then it got worse -- they looked dead.
But improbably and methodically — steadfastly becoming inevitably — the Jonesboro Cardinals roared to life Friday and earned a trip to the Class AAAA semifinals.
The Cardinals, trailing all the way into the middle of the fourth quarter, came up with three 3-pointers in 72 seconds and went on to a 58-49 victory against county rival Lovejoy at Fort Valley State University. They will play Miller Grove (22-6), which defeated Marist 60-51, in the semis next Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. at The Arena at Gwinnett Center.
They won with Casey Wells on the bench, done for the remainder of the playoffs with an injured right knee. They won despite a 12-point first half that included a four-point second quarter. They won despite missing seven of their first eight free throws. They won despite trailing for 25:48 of the game's 32 minutes, with another 2:09 spent during a scoreless tie.
But the Cardinals still had a pulse, and experience this season has shown that they are able to turn the faintest beat into something great.
They just couldn't look to the sideline to find it.
"We told them at halftime there was nothing we could scheme or say," Jonesboro coach Dan Maehlman said. "They just weren't playing hard or aggressive. I told them we couldn't win this game. It was up to them."
The Cardinals responded, never losing their poise.
"We've been in this situation many times," said Cameron Sutton, whose fourth-quarter 3-pointers gave Jonesboro its first lead and then doubled it. "Once we got up on them, we had to stay on them. We had to put our foot on their neck."
Their fans awakened first, waving a red sea of handkerchiefs in rhythm and exhorting the Cardinals to come alive. And they did, reversing their free-throw woes to make 12 of their next 13 tries. Jonesboro led for only 4:03, but it was the last 4:03, and that's what counted.
Patrick Petty emerged from a shooting slump to lead the Cardinals with 20 points, while Sutton had 18. Chukedubem Okeke had 13 points, seven rebounds and five blocked shots and fouled out Lovejoy's 6-foot-9 shot-blocking threat, Justin Tuoyo, with 3:41 left in the game. Once Tuoyo was gone, the Cardinals outscored Lovejoy 12-6 the rest of the way.
"We were outplayed, outcoached -- however you want to spin it," Lovejoy coach Rick Francis said. "We couldn't do anything. We had a meltdown on defense. Intelligence plays a major role in this game and we didn't execute under duress."
Lovejoy led 25-12 at halftime, employing the same kind of suffocating defense that produced a 48-37 victory over the Cardinals during the regular season.
The Cardinals (26-4) looked like a team playing without an offensive limb, and indeed they were, minus Wells. Without him, the Cardinals couldn't find anybody to keep the Lovejoy defense honest. The Wildcats often double-teamed the ball in the backcourt, seeming confident that they wouldn't pay a price in easy baskets on the other end.
Jonesboro scored only four points in the second quarter. It took the Cardinals nearly five minutes in the period before they got their first basket, a 3-pointer by Sutton. They added only a free throw by Petty with 21.9 seconds to go until halftime.
Lovejoy (24-6) used a 10-0 run to take its biggest lead of the first half, with half its points during the spurt coming from Jermaine Hough, who led Lovejoy with 13 points. That helped turn a 13-8 advantage at the end of the first quarter into a 23-8 Lovejoy lead with 3:42 to play in the half.
When it was over, though, all that was forgotten as Jonesboro players rushed over to their fans and engaged in a joyful, hopping celebration. Even Wells limped over, dropped his crutches to join in the glee, hopping in rhythm with all the others. Jonesboro was alive to fight another day.