Tracy Hector has been a force for Jonesboro in the paint during the Cardinals state-playoff run to the finals. (Staff Photo: Derrick Mahone)
Jonesboro vs. Columbia
What: Class AAAA title
Records, rankings: Columbia is 27-4, and ranked No. 1; Jonesboro is 26-6 and ranked No. 2.
When, where: Thursday, 8:45 p.m. at Macon Coliseum
How they got here: Columbia defeated Lumpkin County 63-20, Fayette County 67-58, Sandy Creek 63-44, Westover (57-55); Jonesboro defeated Alexander (78-75).
Directions: Take I-75 South to I-16 East. Take Exit 2 and make a left. The Macon Coliseum will be on your left.
JONESBORO — Columbia has been in this spot before — playing for a state championship.
In fact, the Eagles have been in the Class AAAA title game the last five seasons, winning four of them.
But just because Jonesboro is making its first state championship appearance since 2004, doesn’t mean the Cardinals are in awe of the situation.
“This is a very special game for us,” Jonesboro junior Tracy Hector said. “We have been waiting on this moment for a while. There are a lot of people shocked that we have made it this far. We have worked as a team, and we have worked hard to get to this game.”
Only one player on the Cardinals roster — DeAntre Mack — got a lot of playing time last season on a roster filled with nine seniors. The Cardinals lost at Statesboro in the quarterfinals last season, but a retooled roster helped them win the Region 4-AAAA Tournament and advance to the finals.
Jonesboro is lead by Hector, who transferred from North Clayton, and freshman James Walker, who was an eighth-grader last season at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy.
“It is pretty amazing what this team has done,” Jonesboro coach Dan Maehlman said.
Jonesboro has played back-to-back close games at Rutland in the quarterfinals and on Saturday against Alexander at West Georgia.
Columbia, which lost in last season’s finals to Eagle’s Landing, will pose the biggest challenge of the playoffs to the Cardinals. The Eagles are sporting a 27-4 record, which includes a 10-game winning streak coming into Thursday’s 8:45 p.m. contest.
The Region 6-AAAA champions are led by junior Bryce Brown, who averages 15.1 points and senior Nick Singleton, who chips in 12.9 points per game.
Walker is averaging 15.8 points, but has turned it on in the postseason. Through the first four state tournament games, he has averaged 21.2 points. In the win over Alexander, he had a season-high 28 points.
“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.”
The Cardinals needed a game-clinching free throw by sophomore Zarrick Cooper to defeat Alexander, which came into the game ranked No. 1 by Maxpreps.
Austin Donaldson’s layup with 31.9 seconds left gave Jonesboro a 77-75 lead, setting up 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.”