Photo by Derrick Mahone
Jonesboro players Victoria Florence (from left), Kim Dawkins and Briana Benson helped coach Michael House (right) rebuild the Lady Cardinals back into a semifinals team for the first time since 2009.
By Brian Paglia
Alexcia Cross spoke, so Michael House listened.
The Jonesboro girls basketball coach knows his senior small forward to be the Lady Cardinals’ jack-of-all-trades, and the team’s toughest player, someone who commands respect from the entire team. So when Cross declared to House, “Coach, we’re going to win it all,” he sensed a deep conviction and urgency.
“To hear someone like (her) say something like that makes me very excited,” House said. “I feel the team’s confidence.”
Indeed, the Lady Cardinals (25-5) must be soaring after taking down No. 1-ranked and defending Class AAAA champion Fayette County with a 47-46 win on Friday at Fort Valley State University. At No. 2, Jonesboro is the top-ranked team left among the final four, making it, in the eyes of many, the favorite to win it all.
But Jonesboro’s opponent today also knows the burden of being the favorite.
Southwest DeKalb (20-11) won three straight Class AAAA championships from 2008-10. This is its fourth semifinals appearance in the last five years. And despite its recent history, the Lady Panthers have been motivated all season less by their lofty standard and more by last year’s state tournament miss, when they were upset in the region tournament.
Southwest DeKalb vs. Jonesboro
When, where: Today, 4 p.m., at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
Records, rankings, seeding: Southwest DeKalb is 20-11, unranked and the No. 3 seed out of Region 6-AAAA; Jonesboro is 25-5, ranked No. 2 in Class AAAA and the No. 1 seed from Region 4.
How they got here: Southwest DeKalb defeated Kell (63-49), Creekview (44-39) and Chamblee (55-52); Jonesboro defeated Woodland (59-38), Statesboro (56-43) and Fayette County (47-46).
What to look for: Keep an eye on Southwest DeKalb freshman Nicole Martin, who is second on the team with 10.4 points per game, and first with 9.2 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game. The 5-foot-9 small forward should be an interesting match-up for the Lady Cardinals’ guard-heavy lineup.
“We were working towards that and just came up a little short [last year],” Southwest DeKalb coach Kathy Walton said. “I think they used that in the offseason as motivation.”
Jonesboro has had three years of motivation. Ever since the Lady Cardinals stormed through the 2008-09 season — going 30-2, capturing a region championship, winning 29 games straight at one point and coming within one basket of making the state championship — it has been a steady return to respectability and competitiveness.
When that season ended, it took with it the Lady Cardinals coach and three Division I seniors. House stepped into a program fresh off immense success, with a community hoping for more, but with a roster overhauled by attrition. Jonesboro fell to 11-15 the next season. The rebuilding had begun.
“It’s taken three long years,” House said.
Yet, sooner rather than later, it was back to .500 at 13-13 last season. This season, all the pieces have come together — the maturation of a young roster, the infusion of size and defense from Lovejoy transfer Kim Dawkins and the confidence-building wins against the recent juggernaut that has become Forest Park.
It’s been back to region championships and back to the semifinals, where the Lady Cardinals feel they belong.
“I’m very confident in my girls and their abilities,” House said. “I believe in them. I believe they’re going to play hard.”
Southwest DeKalb’s absence from this stage was shorter than Jonesboro’s and far more noteworthy, but no less painful. But just a year away from the semifinals means the Lady Panthers have a great advantage over Jonesboro in experience, with five players on the roster who have won at least one state championship.
It’s a testament to Southwest DeKalb’s program, then, that it’s best all-around player might be Nicole Martin, a 5-foot-9 freshman small forward who hasn’t won any state championships. She’s second on the team in scoring (10.4 points per game), and first in rebounds (9.4) and blocked shots (1.7).
“Nicole’s a competitor,” Walton said. “Even though she’s young, she’s very athletic and she loves to play the game.”
House looks at Southwest DeKalb this year and sees nothing alarmingly different about its previous dominant teams.
“They look pretty athletic,” House said. “They have good perimeter skill players. They seem like they have decent size, but I don’t think they have the athleticism inside that we have. They’re very well-coached. [Walton] is one of the most well-respected coaches in the state of Georgia.”
And yet, now — with signature wins this state tournament run against Statesboro and Fayette County — all the respect is being showered upon Jonesboro.
“They’re definitely the favorite,” Walton said. “They beat the defending state champs, and beat Statesboro, which was ranked No. 1 for part of the year. They did better in their region than we did. So I definitely think they’re the favorite.”