By Gabriel Stovall
MACON, Ga. — The scene: Class AAAA championship game between Carrollton and top-ranked Jonesboro.
The stakes: If Jonesboro wins, they become, perhaps, the first Clayton County team to repeat as state champions in one of the three major sports, football, basketball and baseball. The Cardinal seniors also have the chance to cement their legacy in an already proud program history.
For Carrollton? Win, and you not only slay the giant, but you capture your first boys state basketball championship in school history.
The intrigue: Jonesboro up 51-47, less than 15 seconds remaining. That’s when Carrollton’s Dontae Bonner drains a three-pointer from the left elbow. 51-50. Trojans foul sophomore James “MJ” Walker immediately off the inbounds pass. Make your free throws, and the worst Carrollton can do with 3.4 seconds left is force overtime on a desperation three. Miss both? Drama.
The result: Walker steps to the line and calmly sinks both. About a second later he’s fouled again after a Carrollton missed shot. Same scenario. He makes the first, puts Jonesboro up by 4 with 1.4 seconds left, and you know it’s over. He then drains the second for insurance. 55-50. Ball game. State title. Back-to-back champs. Drive home safely.
And the celebration?
What celebration? Make no mistake. There were plenty of hugs to go around. Chest bumps. Hand shakes. Coach Dan Maehlman started crying.
But that was about it. They gathered around the trophy, held it up for the remaining Centreplex crowd — predominantly Jonesboro fans at this point — to see. They smiled. Posed for some pictures. Talked to some media types. Went back to the locker room, where they did eventually douse Maehlman with the Gatorade bath.
But that’s about it.
You were expecting a court storming, maybe? Confetti? The “We Are the Champions” song blaring in the background? Impassioned speeches about how this team overcame the target on its back all season long? Willis Reed comparisons being made to Tracy Hector?
If the post-championship celebration seemed anti-climatic, it’s only because this close-knit group of high school hoopers had other things on their minds, even as the pomp and circumstance surrounding them did its best to try and make them whoop it up more vigorously.
“It was kind of a sad moment, actually,” said senior DeAntre Mack. “It’s sad that I won’t be wearing this jersey again.”
Fellow senior point guard Austin Donaldson felt the same. In fact, he’s been trying to hold back the emotions and fight off the tears since talking about his last game after this past Tuesday’s practice.
“Normally I’m hyped for a game,” he said Tuesday. “When people ask me am I ready, I answer back quick, like yeah, I’m ready. But I hesitated this week. I know no matter what happens, Thursday will be my last game in this uniform.”
And after Thursday’s big moment came and went, the Chattanooga signee hadn’t changed his tune.
“Yeah, I’m sure the tears are gonna come once I get back to the locker room,” Donaldson said. “You wanna celebrate and all, and you’re happy and stuff, but at the end of the day, you know next year there will be no more of this,” Donaldson said. “No more coming back, celebrating with teammates. I’m going to miss these guys.”
For Hector — and Donaldson to an extent — the celebration was tempered by what the 6-foot-6 senior said was subpar play from his team.
How about that? Even after concluding his high school career as a back-to-back state champion, Hector sounded like he wanted to skip the post game festivities and go straight to the film room.
“You’re happy, but it was also a sloppy win for us,” Hector said. “I’m happy, but it wasn’t the best win for us at all.”
Said Donaldson: “The feeling is still surreal, but you just wanna go out with more of a bang than we did. I think we should’ve played much better than we did. But as long as we got the win for Coach Maehlman, Jonesboro and the family, then it’s good to come out with the win.”
You can garner two main takeaways from such statements: One, this Jonesboro team may be full of talent — overflowing, perhaps — but it isn’t full of themselves. And two, the Cardinals have a ton of pride for that Clayton County city name spread across their chests.
In the locker room before the game, a Georgia High School Association representative came to congratulate the Cardinals for making it to Class AAAA’s big show.
“You guys are playing for yourselves, but you’re also playing for your school and for the seven and eight year old kids out there looking up to you and wanting to be like you,” she told them.
And it’s clear that such an others-centered focus was not lost on Jonesboro.
“It’s very big for all of us to win back-to-back,” Hector said. “I didn’t think it would feel better than the first one, but it did. I love my team. I love our coaching staff. I love Jonesboro.”