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STATE BASKETBALL: Liberty County stymies No. 1 Jonesboro, haults Cardinals’ bid for a three-peat

No. 1 Jonesboro came up short against second-ranked Liberty County in Thursday night's Class AAAA championship game. (PHOTO: Jason Mussell)

No. 1 Jonesboro came up short against second-ranked Liberty County in Thursday night’s Class AAAA championship game. (PHOTO: Jason Mussell)

By James Butler

MACON, Ga. – Jonesboro bid to win its third consecutive Class AAAA Championship fell short Thursday night in the state title game when the Cardinals fell behind early to Liberty County and could not make up the deficit on their way to a 58-52 defeat.

Jonesboro finishes the season at 28-5 after losing to an opponent from Georgia for the first time since its season-opening loss to Norcross.

“It wasn’t meant to be tonight,” Jonesboro head coach Dan Maehlman said. “Liberty [County] did a great job. Their kids played with unbelievable intensity and they wanted it.”

Liberty County’s dynamic duo of Davion Mitchell and Richard LeCounte accounted for 34 of the Panthers 58 points with LeCounte scoring 20. Will Richardson added 19 points for the Panthers; while Jonesboro’s junior standout MJ Walker led all scorers with 22 points.

Both juniors as well, Mitchell a Auburn basketball commit and LeCounte a Georgia football commit, the pair seemed to swap roles for the state title game.

“Our original game plan was to take away [Mitchell] first because he’s the ‘basketball player’ going to Auburn,” Maehlman said. “We wanted to take him away and keep [LeCounte] in front of us and make [Richardson] go right, and try not to help much off of him when they go to his side.”

LeCounte who averages 20 points per game, four shy of Mitchell’s team-leading 24, was one of the few players from either team to find his rhythm early. His three-pointer with around a minute left in the first quarter put the Panthers up 11-8 and the never relinquished the lead. The closest Jonesboro came was 50-48 with 1:48 remaining in the game after a Walker free throw.

“[LeCounte] started off with a flurry,” Maehlman said. “He was doing everything. He was rebounding, he was hitting threes.”

Liberty County (28-1) extended a four-point halftime lead to seven, 37-30, at the end of three quarters. The Panthers led by as many as 11 points in the third period after Mitchell connected on a three-pointer to put them up 33-22. Liberty County earlier took a 26-22 lead into halftime after a first 16 minutes that saw the Panthers lead by as many as nine points at 22-13. Jonesboro inched its way back into the game thanks to a couple of impressive drives by Tariq Jenkins and a jumper and some free throws by Walker before the Panthers started the third quarter with seven straight points.

Mitchell was held in check for most of the night by Jonesboro as he scored the majority of his 14 points when senior Cardinal guard Kenneth Qualls was not guarding him.

“It was the other two guys,” Maehlman said speaking of the damage done by LeCounte and Richardson. “We knew all three were good.”

Jonesboro did hold an offensive-minded Panther team to 38 percent shooting from the field, but could only hit 33 percent of their own shots while being outrebounded 42-35. The 52 points Jonesboro scored were its third-lowest total of the season. Liberty County’s 58 were its second lowest of the season.

“There are not many teams that score over 60 against us,” Maehlman said. “I thought if we could keep it in that [scoring range], as much as they like to go up and down the floor, we had a good chance to win.”

Both teams also struggled specifically from the three-point line as Jonesboro was 3-for-17 and Liberty County only hit 5 of 15.

Jonesboro had won the last two Class AAAA Championships and was looking to make Liberty County the third opponent it had defeated in back-to-back seasons in the state tournament. The Cardinals narrowly escaped Carrollton 51-50 in the second round after defeating the Trojans in the Class AAAA title game a year ago. Jonesboro beat St. Pius in the next round after beating them in the second round in 2015. The Cardinals defeated Liberty County by 28 points in last season’s semifinals.

In last season’s state tournament game Mitchell and LeCounte combined for 21 points with LeCounte scoring 10 of them.

Jonesboro will lose seven seniors, five of whom received significant playing time.