By Gabriel Stovall
MACON, Ga. — The Jonesboro Cardinals came up on the losing end of things Thursday night as the Liberty County Panthers knocked off Class AAAA’s No. 1 team 58-52. Here’s my knee-jerk analysis from Thursday night’s state championship game.
FIVE THINGS WE LEARNED
1. Liberty County’s win was no fluke. From the opening tip to the final buzzer, the Panthers seemed two steps faster to every loose ball and played with an intensity level that seemed to send Jonesboro into a little shock and awe. Liberty County controlled the pace and the passion from the jump, and if not for seven missed first half free throws, its four point halftime lead would’ve been more.
2. The Panthers are more than just Davion Mitchell. In fact, it probably wasn’t even the Auburn commit who had the biggest hand in the win. Mitchell finished with 14 points on 4-of-11 shooting and just one steal and zero assists. It was Richard LeCounte’s energetic 20 points (14 in the first half) and sophomore Will Richardson’s 19 points (12 in the second half) that really spoiled the three-peat party for Jonesboro.
3. M.J. Walker missed the leadership of guys like Austin Donaldson and Tracy Hector. Walker did what he could to keep Jonesboro in it. Thirteen of his 22 points came in the second half, and he saved some of his niftiest moves for down the stretch. But too many times when Liberty County’s defense had Walker bottled up there wasn’t a Jonesboro player willing to try to make the big shot, a la Donaldson and Hector last season.
4. These are clearly the two best teams in Class AAAA. Hands down. And a quick perusal of the roster shows that both teams’ best players will return next year, which means it’s not a stretch to say that both of these teams could be challenging for state crowns again next year.
5. Jonesboro coach Dan Maehlman is a class act. Even as his team was mourning the loss with tears and shouts of frustration, Maehlman encouraged them to stay on the court while Liberty County received its championship trophy, and he led Jonesboro in the genuine applause of the Panthers’ triumph. “You win with class, you lose with class,” is what Maehlman said to his dejected bunch on the way back to the locker room.
FIVE THINGS WE STILL DON’T KNOW
1. Who can pick up the scoring slack for Walker on a consistent basis for Jonesboro next season?
2. Liberty County reminded just about everybody on press row of Jonesboro’s first championship team. Could the Panthers’ big three of LeCounte, Mitchell and Richardson bring them back to this stage again next season?
3. Will Jonesboro’s loss rekindle the flames of competitiveness in them once again? Maehlman said he felt Liberty County “just wanted it more than we did.” Will the defeat put hunger in the Cardinals’ bellies once again?
4. How much longer before Maehlman may get a coaching offer he can’t refuse? He’s been at Jonesboro 16 years, and the Cardinals have been solid to good at minimum each year he’s been at the helm.
5. What will Jonesboro’s move to Class AAAAAA mean for the level of competition it will face?