Forest Park head coach Jay Jones says his Panthers are playing the best ball of the season at the right time. (PHOTO: Ben Ennis)
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PREP BASKETBALL: Forest Park boys playing their best ball of the season after Lovejoy win

LOVEJOY, Ga. — Forest Park boys basketball coach Jay Jones would probably rather you take a look at his team’s last four games to see exactly what he envisions his Panthers program to look like on the court. 

Hone in particularly on their most recent game — a 66-65 win over Lovejoy Saturday at Lovejoy, that gave Forest Park its first three game winning streak since a stretch of games between January 10 and 17 when it defeated Lovejoy, Mount Zion and M.L. King in consecutive games during the 2016-17 season. 

On Saturday, Forest Park used a monster game from junior Jaylen Anderson who erupted for 28 points along with some clutch moments of stalwart defense and examples of solid team ball in order to give itself some momentum heading into Monday’s region tournament play-in game against Drew. 

And Jones, in his second full season at the program’s helm, didn’t mind sharing his feelings about the Panthers’ latest streak of fortune. 

“I’m real proud, very proud,” Jones said. “My biggest message to them earlier on was just about truly playing together, being a team and being a family. We did some of that tonight. And if we do that, there isn’t a team that can beat us in this region.” 

For some, it may seem like a bit of hyperbole, especially if you take a peak at the Panthers’ 5-18 overall mark and 4-12 record in Region 4-AAAAAA. But a deeper look seems to suggest some merit in Jones’ confidence. 

Of Forest Park’s 12 region losses, five of them have been by double figures. But only one team — Morrow — has defeated them by double digits in both games played. Other than that, the Panthers have been competitive in every region game regardless of competition. 

For instance, Stephenson defeated Forest Park 68-57 on January 8, but they lost by only three in the season opener. With Mundy’s Mill, both of Forest Park’s losses were by six points. Against Tucker, the region’s top team, Forest Park fell 73-44 in the most recent matchup on January 11, but lost only by three to the Tigers on November 27. 

Saturday night, the Panthers avenged a 47-36 loss on November 8 to Lovejoy while riding the coat tails of Anderson, one of Forest Park’s most prolific scorers. who knocked down seven 3-pointers against the region’s fifth place team. 

“He’s definitely someone whom we expect to bring big things to us,” Jones said. “One of the huge factors for us this season is the way he’s played. His scoring and handling the ball, how he handles pressure situations. But we’ve been freeing him up lately to be more of a prominent scorer, and he’s been able to do that. Him being able to be a scorer is really important to what we want to do with our program.” 

Jones made a bit of a loose-fitting comparison of Anderson to Forest Park’s most recent standout scorer, Avery Wilson, who went on to sign at Boston College after his senior season. 

“With Jaelyn, there’s no ceiling really, because you just don’t know yet how good he can be,” Jones said. “He scored 27 (Saturday), but I still would say it’s not one of his better games. He’s kind of like Avery was a while ago. People would look at Avery and say he’s athletic, he’s big, but we don’t know what he can do. And then he went out and had a great senior year. 

“Same thing with ’T.O.’ You may say you’re not really sure what all he can do, but he scored 21 against MLK. He’s been scoring 15, 16, 17 points and 20 here and there. People are starting to see about him what we already knew.”

It wasn’t just Anderson who pushed Forest Park to victory on Saturday, though. Senior Mark Alston pitched in with 13 points. Tremayne Hopkins added eight points. And at times, Forest Park played clutch defense, either forcing key turnovers or sitting patiently in prevention mode, keeping Lovejoy from finding good looks at the basket.

It’s the team approach — “the collective,” as Jones likes to call it — that the coach is banking on to help get his program back to the state tournament, despite a below .500 record. 

The three game tear lets Jones know that his team is primed to play its best basketball of the season, after a year of ups, downs and some unexpected roster changes. 

“In the early parts of the season, it was really about us getting to know the players and knowing each other on the floor,” he said. “It was getting the right mix. We tried different shakeups to the lineup. Then we had (Forest Park football standout) Justin Eboigbe who played

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Gabriel Stovall

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