Photo by Jerry Jackson: Jonesboro shooting guard Ashley Hand is thwarted as she drives to the basket for a shot Friday in the Class AAAA semifinals at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
DULUTH — Other than the obvious — the 22 turnovers, the breakdowns on defense and the 10 missed free throws — Jonesboro girls basketball coach Michael House felt more gratification than frustration after the Lady Cardinals' 51-35 loss to Southwest DeKalb in the Class AAAA semifinals Wednesday at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
This team, he reasoned, wasn't supposed to reach these heights yet. As administrators met House outside the team's locker room, he told them with conviction, "We overachieved."
"I'm really proud of my girls," House said. "They did a great job, a remarkable season. We were picked third or fourth in the region and we finished third or fourth in the state. They did a great job."
Indeed, without a player on its roster familiar with the pressures of playing in the semifinals, Jonesboro fell apart when Southwest DeKalb turned the pressure up even more in the second half with its full-court defense.
Alexcia Cross hit a quick jumpshot coming out of halftime to tie the game at 15-15, but the Lady Panthers, making their fourth semifinals appearance in the last five season, took control from there. Nicole Razier hit a short jumper, Jasmine Coleman made an easy layup off a turnover, and suddenly Southwest DeKalb was on its way to a 16-4 run to grab a 31-19 lead.
Now, Southwest DeKalb (21-7) will look to make it four state championships in five seasons Friday against the winner of Alcovy-Miller Grove. The Lady Panthers got double-doubles from the backcourt duo of freshman Nicole Martin (12 points, 12 rebounds) and Coleman (12 points, 14 rebounds), a senior, while Shayla Rivers scored all of her 10 points in the second half.
"I think experience hurt us," House said. "They were very well-coached, and they handled our pressure. We didn't handle their pressure very well at all. We were making mistakes and playing out of our comfort zone."
It wasn't that Jonesboro fatigued from trying to withstand constant pressure defense by Southwest DeKalb, for after the Lady Panthers grabbed a 12-point lead in the third quarter, they eased off, giving the Lady Cardinals a chance to get their offense going.
That's when center Kimberly Dawkins started to break out. She scored seven of Jonesboro's next nine points, and the Lady Cardinals cut the lead to 34-28 with under five minutes left in the game. Dawkins was Jonesboro's lone constant performer. She punctuated a strong state tournament with a team-high 15 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks.
"She played huge," House said. "She was big in the middle. She's done that for us all year. She's Ms. Double-Double, and she's a special kid, a special player."
But Dawkins wasn't enough to overcome the team shooting woes Jonesboro endured. The normally potent duo of Victoria Florence and Briana Benson combined for just seven points. The Lady Cardinals, a sound free throw shooting team throughout the season, made just 6 of 16 from the line.
And when Dawkins' lay-up off an inbounds pass brought Jonesboro within six, Southwest DeKalb turned on the pressure again. In one sequence, Rivers made a fast-break lay-up and a transition jump shot, and Nekia Sockwell made a transition lay-up to stretch its lead into double digits again at 42-29.
"We lost hope," Dawkins said. "I guess that's the best way to put it. We just started making mistakes, had too many turnovers and we couldn't make a shot."
The Lady Cardinals end their season 25-6, champions of Region 4-AAAA and ready to bring its core of juniors back for more next season.