By Gabriel Stovall
OAKWOOD, Ga. — When last Sunday’s Georgia High School Association sanctioned coin toss to determine whether Jonesboro or Johnson-Gainesville — both No. 1 seeds in their respective regions — would get home court advantage for the quarterfinals took place, the flip fell in Johnson’s favor.
Despite that, there was some discussion as to whether or not the game should be moved to Georgia State to accommodate what was expected to be a large crowd.
Needless to say, some on the Johnson High side didn’t like the idea of having to play at the Atlanta school — closer to Jonesboro than to the Gainesville area. It touched off some Twitter chatter, and even one Johnson High enthusiast suggesting that Jonesboro would rather play closer to home because the Cardinals knew if they had to travel to Johnson they would lose.
Tracy Hector saw it, and he couldn’t help himself from replying.
“Just play ball,” Hector tweeted in response Sunday evening. “Best team win.”
After that, the Twitter talk subsided. But on Thursday night, in front of one of the loudest home crowds Jonesboro coach Dan Maehlman had ever coached his team in, Hector let his game alone do the talking, per the advice of fellow senior teammate Austin Donaldson.
“I tweeted my part and I showed Austin what was said, and Austin tweeted back ‘no talking,'” Hector said. “So we just came in and showed them what we do.”
All Hector did was score a game-high 15 points — including an electrifying dunk on an alley-oop pass from DeAntre Mack late in the fourth quarter — despite Maehlman saying he was “playing at 70 percent” health, and helped the top-ranked Jonesboro Cardinals overcome that raucous crowd and some first quarter jitters to knock off previously unbeaten No. 5 Johnson High, 50-35.
The win sends Jonesboro to play Liberty County (24-4) in Class AAAA’s Final Four round at West Georgia on Saturday at 4:45 p.m.
Hector’s big game came fresh off of getting his first college offer from Queens University in Charlotte, NC. But he had plenty of defensive help from his teammates, especially junior guard Kenneth Qualls who drew the unenviable task of defending Class AAAA’s leading scorer Ty Cockfield.
Cockfield came into the game averaging 29 points per contest. He left Thursday’s game with just 11. And he needed two garbage time baskets in the fourth quarter to get out of single digits.
For that, Maehlman lauded the effort of his team collectively, and Qualls individually.
“Our guys in the first half didn’t really execute defensively like we should have,” Maehlman said. “We’ve been struggling with that a little bit. But you could see in the second half when we executed the game plan. That’s a good team we played, with Ty and (Roderick English). Kenneth Qualls did a phenomenal job to hold him to 11 tonight.”
It was English who led the Knights in scoring Thursday with 13. But even that was a full six points less than his season average.
The effort elicited praise from Johnson coach Jeff Steele.
“They did things that we have not seen,” Steele told the Gainesville Times after the game. “I’ve never coached (against) a team that defends as well as they do, in my opinion, and I’ve been doing this a long time. To me, personally, it was an honor to get to play them, and quite honestly the better team won. I just think they’re a better team than us and I can live in that moment.”
Steele will be able to sleep well because of the effort his bunch gave against arguably the state’s best team, regardless of classification.
Johnson got on the board first and built a 15-13 lead at the end of the first quarter, the Cardinals outscored Johnson 14-7 in the 2nd Quarter to take a 27-22 halftime lead. By then Mack began heating up, scoring the team’s final two points in the second quarter on a pretty in-the-paint floater over English’s outstretched hand.
Then the senior picked up where he left off in the third quarter, nailing a 3-pointer just 47 seconds in to stretch the lead to 30-22. He tied Hector for the team-high with 15 points of his own.
Mack’s shooting was timely in light of an off shooting night from Jonesboro leading scorer James “MJ” Walker. Walker, averaging 17.5 points per game, scored only eight against Johnson. But the sophomore said it was no cause for him to hang his head.
“Well, first I wanna start off by saying it’s not about me,” Walker said. “It’s about the team. If my shot’s not falling, I want to find something else I can do to help my team win. That’s all it’s about right now. Helping my team win.”
The defending state champs then used a 13-1 fourth quarter run that began with a put-back by Donaldson at the 7:35 mark to stretch their lead to as much as 17 points.
It left Maehlman feeling good about the effort his team gave in a pressure-packed environment.
“Just imagine coming into this atmosphere as a high school kid, regardless of your ranking,” Maehlman said. “That crowd tonight was amazing. It was loud. My kids couldn’t hear me.”
But the way they pushed past it made the long-time Jonesboro coach proud.
“I can’t play,” he said. “I can only coach them, and hope they execute the plan. When they don’t do it, things can get a little hairy sometimes. But that’s why the game is broken up into quarters and halves. You may not execute well in one quarter or one half, but you go and make the adjustments, and if you have a good team, good things will happen. And my kids are good.”