Photo by Jason Mussell / Jonesboro center Kim Dawkins is harassed by Columbia defenders in the Lady Cardinals' 49-44 loss in the Class AAAA semifinals at Fort Valley State on Saturday.
FORT VALLEY — For three and a half quarters it looked like Jonesboro was destined to take the seemingly natural next step toward a state championship.
But a furious comeback by No. 6 Columbia, fueled by a long 3-pointer Miah Spencer and capped with several clutch baskets and a decisive steal by Yaktavia Hickson, helped the Lady Eagles storm back from a 14 point defecit to defeat the Lady Cardinals 49-44 Saturday in the Class AAAA semifinals.
Jonesboro held a 35-24 advantage at the end of the third quarter before Spencer knocked down the trey that effectively flipped the momentum switch for a Columbia team who, according to coach Chantay Frost, made up its mind at halftime that it didn’t want its season to end.
“At our school we hang up the championship banners on one side of the gym and the runner up banners on the other side,” Frost said. “I asked them, ‘What’s going to be your legacy? What side of the gym are you going to hang your banner?’”
Spencer’s three pulled the Eagles to within 35-27 with 7:32 remaining in the fourth. Columbia would cut the lead to one on a Hickson jumper, but Benson’s spinning drive to the basket gave Jonesboro a 37-34 lead with 5:24 left in the game.
From there the two teams traded baskets before Spencer nailed a deep three from the right elbow to give Columbia a 39-38 lead — its first of the game — with 1:41 left in the game. With Columbia 43-40, Dawkins scored on a layup to cut the lead back to one.
Spencer was abruptly fouled on the inbound and went to the line to shoot two free throws. After making the first and missing the second, Benson grabbed a rebound with the chance to tie the score at 44 or take the lead, but she dribbled into Hickson who ripped the ball from her and was fouled with 18.6 seconds remaining. Hickson effectively ended any Jonesboro chances of a comeback by sinking both foul shots.
Frost said it was fitting that Spencer and Hickson were the ones to seal the deal and give Columbia a chance at its third state title in four seasons.
“I told (Hickson) and (Spencer) that the championship rests on their shoulders, and that they would be the ones to make it happen,” said Frost who is leading Columbia through its first season in Class AAAA.
Early on it looked like Jonesboro would be the one playing for the chance to hoist the championship hardware.
The Cardinals looked in control as they shot out to an 8-0 lead when Briana Benson buried a corner three and Kimberly Dawkins converted on an old fashioned three-point play with just under five minutes gone by in the first quarter.
Jonesboro extended its 14-9 lead at the beginning of the second quarter to a 12 point advantage when Benson drained another three and Wynn scored two of her 18 points on a reverse scoop layup. The pair of baskets gave the Lady Cardinals a 27-13 lead at halftime.
Jonesboro’s stellar first half gave no indication of what was to come in the final 16 minutes. But Lady Cardinals coach Eric Harris said he knew a Columbia comeback wasn’t out of the question.
“They made a run,” said Harris just outside of a Jonesboro locker room filled with the sound of sobs. “Basketball is a game of runs. We made our run at first. They just made the last run. We had a few mental breakdowns and a couple of chances to ice it at the end, but the ball just didn’t bounce our way.”
It wasn’t for lack of effort that Jonesboro came up short. Wynn tied Columbia’s Hickson with a game-high 18 points. Benson scored 14 and Dawkins, with just five points, put in work defensively with seven blocked shots and 11 rebounds.
Perhaps the most striking stat of the night came from Victoria Florence. The sharp shooting senior who came into Saturday’s game averaging close to 20 points per contest in the postseason scored just one for the night — a free throw in the waning moments of the game.
Harris said that although his seniors are heartbroken, they will be better for the future because of what they experienced.
“We learn from this,” Harris said. “I’m proud of our seniors. They gave a valiant effort all season, and especially tonight. They wanted it. They really wanted this. It just slipped away. They’ve got a lot of fight in them though. They’ll play a lot of basketball in the years to come and they’ll learn from this.”
Jonesboro ends its season at 26-5, while Columbia will go on to play Sandy Creek — a 48-23 winner over Mary Persons in the other semifinal game — in Thursday’s Class AAAA state championship game in Macon. In addition to Hickson’s 18 points, Spencer chipped in with 16 for the Lady Eagles.