By James Butler
MACON, Ga. – After a season that was equal parts challenging and dream-like, coach Dan Maehlman’s Jonesboro basketball team was not going to let a less-than-effecient six minutes prevent them from achieving their goal of winning back-to-back Class AAAA state titles.
The Jonesboro Cardinals outlasted the Carrollton Trojans 55-50 to claim its second straight state championship.
The game wasn’t officially in the books until James MJ Walker sank four free throws in the last 3.4 seconds of the game to secure the win. Walker had a team-high 21 points, while senior Tracy Hector finished with 20 points. After appearing to have landed a knockout out blow at the start of the third quarter by extending their lead to 10 points, the Cardinals saw Region 5-AAAA champion Carrollton (29-3) walk them down and tie the game at 37-37 and 39-39 halfway through the fourth quarter.
That’s when Jonesboro Hector, the consummate energy player, put his effort into overdrive. The 6-foot-6 forward scored six straight points — four of them coming on hustle put-backs — and Jonesboro would trail no more, despite Carrollton’s Dontae Bonner sinking a three to make it 51-50, Jonesboro, before Walker sank his free throws to seal the win.
“You can’t say enough of him,” Maehlman said of Hector. “I’ve been telling everybody he’s playing injured. The last six games he goes and gets a steroid shot before he comes to play. He’s not our only character kid. It goes throughout all of them.”
Hector said he felt the need to put his team on his back in his last game as a Cardinal.
“I’m a senior so I have to step up,” Hector Jr. said. If I play good then my team plays good. I couldn’t let my team down because we’re a family. I couldn’t see us losing because we’ve been working very hard throughout the season, so I just went out and played my heart out.”
After going into the locker room with a 24-20 advantage, Jonesboro scored the first four points of the third quarter to go up 28-20 as Hector found a cutting Walker and senior point guard Austin Donaldson got a steal and score.
After Carrollton battled back to get within 28-25, Jonesboro went on a 7-0 run as Hector Jr. scored on a drive and Walker hit a 3-pointer and followed it with another basket. The Trojans remained defiant and cut Jonesboro’s lead to 37-32 at the end of the third quarter.
The Cardinals finishes the season at 32-1 and holds the designation as one of the best teams in the country.
Jonesboro entered the week ranked No. 8 in both the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 Ratings and Grassroots Hoops FAB 50 Ratings. Jonesboro’s only defeat on the season was a 92-72 loss to Montverde Academy (FL) in the Cardinals’ second game. Montverde is the nation’s top-ranked high school squad.
All of the rankings talk is secondary to the team’s own personal work ethic, according to Walker.
“We don’t even worry about that. We let our work every day in practice take care of that,” Walker said. “The ranking stuff is all good, but we’re still going to grind regardless.”
“It feels good to hear those things, but it feels better winning the state championship back-to-back,” Hector Jr. added.
In a true measure of how time flies, Walker, Jonesboro’s leading scorer, will be an upperclassmen next season for the Cardinals after being one of the most highly touted sophomores in the country. However, the team’s senior nucleus of Hector, Deantre Mack, and Donaldson will have graduated.
“That’s why I’ve been so emotional,” Maehlman said. “There are five or six of those guys that are never going to put that Jonesboro across their chest again, and they’re all special. That’s the thing that’s making me cry the most. It’s not that we won. That’s great, but those kids not coming back is going to take me a little bit getting used to.”