Jonesboro freshman James “MJ” Walker led the Cardinals with 28 points and nailed several clutch free throws down the stretch in overtime to help the Cardinals notch a 78-75 win over top-ranked Alexander. (Staff Photo: Gabriel Stovall)
CARROLLTON — Point the bus toward Macon, Jonesboro fans.
Cardinals sophomore Zerrick Cooper hit what proved to be a game sealing free throw with just 7.5 seconds left in overtime, to give Jonesboro a 78-75 victory over top-ranked Alexander in the Class AAAA semifinals Saturday at West Georgia University in Carrollton.
The win earned Jonesboro a chance to play for a state title Thursday at the Macon Centreplex Arena against Columbia.
Jonesboro overcame perhaps the best individual scoring performance in this year's state tournament from Alexander’s Hassan Gravett who poured in 46 points, as well as its own struggles from the free throw line the fourth quarter to pull out the upset win.
James Walker, Austin Donaldson and Kenneth Qualls missed six of eight free throws within the last minute of the fourth quarter, the latest from Donaldson coming with 15 seconds left and Jonesboro clinging to a a 68-67 lead. After Donaldson’s last missed free throw, Alexander’s Mikell Lands sank the second of two foul shots to tie the game with 13.9 seconds left.
Jonesboro’s DeAntre Mack missed a potential game winning three pointer, and several Cardinals misfired on several putback opportunities before the buzzer sounded marking the end of regulation.
Despite the missed opportunities, Jonesboro coach Dan Maehlman said his squad’s confidence was hardly affected as they prepared for the extra period.
“I just told them in that huddle, you know, we missed some free throws. We missed some opportunities to win the game,” Maehlman said. “But that’s over now. They all looked at each other in the huddle and said, ‘We’re going to make our free throws this time. We’re going to get rebounds this time. We’re going to make defensive stops this time, and we’re going to find a way to win this game.”
Jonesboro freshman James “MJ” Walker paced the Cardinals early in the extra period, with two aggressive drives to the hoop that warranted him trips to the free throw line. And this time Walker did as his coach predicted by sinking both to put Jonesboro up 72-68 just one minute into overtime.
Gravett answered back with a three pointer of his own, and then two free throws which actually gave Alexander a 73-72 lead with 1:37 remaining. But Alexander would just manage two more points the rest of the way. Meanwhile Qualls and Donaldson both nailed free throws in the final seconds, and Donaldson’s drive to the hole with 31.9 seconds left gave Jonesboro a 77-75 lead, setting them up for Cooper to step to the line and nail the second of his two free throws.
Cooper, who used an unorthodox one-handed shooting motion, was overcome with emotion as he described his game clinching feat.
“It was hard,” said Cooper, with tears streaming down his face. “I mean it was real hard to step up there and make those free throw. I’ve been working on my free throws all season long. I started shooting them with one hand because coach Maehlman told me to try it. I’m just glad that I was able to be in the position to make that shot and help send my team to state.”
The game was intense and fast paced, throughout, with no team ever able to enjoy more than an eight point lead.
Jonesboro raced out to a 6-2 lead early in the first quarter when Elijah Wade scored down low on a lay-in, and Walker tallied the team’s next four points with a pair of free throws and a 15-foot jump shot. Gravett responded for Alexander by draining the first of his eight three pointers on the night, only to be immediately answered by Walker who drained a trey of his own to give Jonesboro a 9-5 lead.
The Cougars would then hit a 7-0 spurt to give them a 14-7 advantage and carrying a 20-15 lead into the second quarter after Jaquon Grier hit a jumper at the buzzer for Alexander.
Gravett, a Gardner-Webb signee, opened the second quarter with a jumper to extend Alexander’s lead to five, but then Tracy Hector would then go to work, hitting the first of his 15 points on a put-back lay in to bring Jonesboro back to within five. And that three point deficit for Jonesboro would remain as the two squads traded buckets, until Hector, Mack and Walker keyed a 9-2 run in the final 4:21 of the first half.
That push gave Jonesboro a 35-33 lead going into the half. Jonesboro would not relinquish its lead until Gravett nailed a three with 3:13 left in the third that put the Cougars back on top 42-41. From there, both teams traded one and two point leads until the final moments of regulation when Alexander was able to force overtime.
Jonesboro’s championship game against Columbia will take place Thursday at 8:45 p.m. Columbia notched a 57-55 win over Westover in the other boys’ semifinal contest earlier in the day.
Jonesboro handed Alexander its first loss in 23 games. The last time the Cougars were on the short end of a contest was when they were upended by New Manchester 62-61 on December 14.
Lands was the only other Cougar other than Gravett in double figures, with 15 points.
Walker led Jonesboro with 28 points, while Donaldson and Hector chipped in with 20 and 15 points respectively. Walker said the fact that his team triumphed despite some tough moments proved that the young Cardinals belong on the state’s biggest high school basketball stage.
“I’m just enjoying this moment right now,” Walker said. “We worked through the summer, late nights, and all of our hard work paid off. We didn’t worry too much about the missed free throws and missed dunks and all that, because I know my team, and I knew we weren’t going to let those things break us down.
“We kept working. We kept playing and fighting threw it, and had our faith in God, and we got the win.”