Photo by Jason Mussell / Jonesboro center Duby Okeke watches as his dunk attempt rattles in and out of the rim.
STOCKBRIDGE — All Jonesboro boys basketball coach Dan Maehlman could think about Thursday night was North Clayton — how well the Cardinals’ opponent knew his players, his team’s plays and how hard it is to sweep the season series with the county rival.
“They know everything we do,” Maehlman said.
But after a suspect defensive effort in the first quarter, Jonesboro cruised to a 76-61 victory over the Eagles in the Region 4-AAAA semifinals at Woodland on Friday.
The Cardinals will play Eagle’s Landing in the championship game tonight at 7:30 p.m., their fifth appearance in a region title game in the past six seasons. North Clayton will play Dutchtown in the boys consolation game at 4:30 p.m.
History suggested Jonesboro couldn’t take North Clayton lightly even after defeating the Eagles twice during the regular season.
It had been three years since either team earned a season sweep against their county rival.
And it had been just one year since North Clayton defeated Jonesboro in the region championship after losing twice to the Cardinals during the regular season.
“That was a big confidence booster for us,” North Clayton coach Martisse Troup said.
“I know they were coming into the game thinking the same thing, that they could beat us since they beat us last year in the championship,”Jonesboro guard Cameron Sutton said. “We just had to take that away this year.”
That took some time. But after falling behind 20-8 in the first quarter, Jonesboro (22-4) dialed up the defensive intensity and got immediate results. The Cardinals closed the quarter with an 8-3 run to pull within 23-16. They started the second quarter with an 11-0 run to take their first lead at 27-26 with 6:13 left.
When North Clayton’s Stafan Bradley hit a deep 3 to tie the game at 33 early in the third quarter, Jonesboro went on a 14-1 run to build a 47-34 lead and seize control of the game.
Patrick Petty scored a game-high 21 points for Jonesboro, Daniel Peace and Sutton had 17 points apiece and Casey Wells added 12. Devin Lewis led North Clayton (14-13) with 17 points, Bradley had 16 points and D’Anthony Fanklin and Paul Sellers each scored 11 points.
“The last two games we’ve started out really slow,” Sutton said. “Both teams, Woodland and North Clayton, kind of jumped out on us. [Today] we’ve got to come out and play our game.”
Indeed, Jonesboro likely won’t be able to survive any early-game jitters in the heavily anticipated rematch with Eagle’s Landing. The Cardinals lost 48-45 in overtime to the Golden Eagles on Jan. 5, a defeat that wasn’t without some controversy.
It took a complete 32-minute effort and then some to play with an Eagle’s Landing’s team with a similar resume — back-to-back state semifinals appearances.
Jonesboro knows anything less won’t cut it tonight.
“We know from our standpoint that we can play with them all night,” Sutton said. “We’ve done it before. We just came up short. ... We’re going to give them a good game.”