Jeff Steele could only tip his hat to a performance unlike anything the Johnson boys basketball coach had ever seen — one good enough to end the previously unbeaten Knights’ historic season.
Top-ranked Jonesboro closed out a shut-down defensive effort by holding Johnson to a lone fourth-quarter point until the final 52 seconds of play in the Class AAAA state quarterfinals. The defending state champion Cardinals outscored the fifth-ranked Knights 13-1 during that span of 7:08 in the final period and advanced to the state semifinals with a 50-35 win over Johnson on Thursday in Oakwood.
Johnson turned the ball over 21 times, a statistic that doesn’t appropriately reflect how disruptive the Jonesboro defense appeared to the naked eye.
“To me, personally, it was an honor to get to play (Jonesboro), and quite honestly the better team won,” Steele said. “I just think they’re a better team than us and I can live in that moment.
“They did things that we have not seen. I’ve never coached (against) a team that defends as well as they do, in my opinion, and I’ve been doing this a long time.”
Tracy Hector Jr. and Deantre Mack tallied 15 points apiece for Jonesboro (30-1), which will face Liberty County in the state semifinals on Saturday at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton.
Roderick English led Johnson (29-1) with 13 points.
Ty Cockfield dropped in two baskets for Johnson in the final 52 seconds, including a posterizing dunk over a Jonesboro player, but by then it was far too little, too late. Cockfield, who came into the game averaging 29 points this season, was held to only 11 even with that pair of garbage-time buckets.
“Our game plan was to stop (number) 1 (Cockfield) and then defend them on the help side, and I think we did a good job of that,” Mack said.
Outside of a brief first-quarter stretch, Mack and the Cardinals made life miserable for a Johnson offense whose last lead was 15-13 in the opening seconds of the second quarter.
Johnson failed to score more than eight points in any of the last three periods, but the Cardinals failed to gain any meaningful separation on the scoreboard until the fourth quarter.
Jonesboro held Johnson scoreless for almost five minutes at the start of the second period, but the Cardinals struggled shooting the ball and only built a modest 23-15 advantage during that time.
“Could they (Jonesboro) be better offensively, yes, but a lot of the reason they’re fairly good offensively is because they’re so good defensively,” Steele said. “Plus, they go to the glass like no team I’ve ever seen, so kudos to them.”
Michael Garcia finally ended Johnson’s drought with a second-chance basket in the paint at the 3:07 mark in the second quarter, and the Knights later went into halftime trailing 27-22.
The Knights still trailed by five points late in the third quarter when Cardinals guard James Walker Jr. drove the baseline and dropped in a reverse layup to extend the lead to 35-28 with 2:52 remaining in the period. Jonesboro led by seven or more points the rest of the way.
Austin Donaldson pushed Jonesboro’s lead to to double digits for the first time on a pair of free throws with 6:13 remaining, after grabbing an offensive rebound and drawing a foul.
Johnson’s first point of the fourth quarter didn’t come until Laderius Odem hit the second of two free throw attempts at the 2:16 mark. By the time he stepped to the line, Jonesboro was comfortably ahead 47-30 courtesy of a 10-0 run.
The Cardinals put the exclamation point on the victory when Hector Jr. cut across the baseline toward the basket and slam dunked an alley-oop pass from Mack with 1:36 remaining.
Johnson’s most effective span of play came late in the opening period. The Knights responded to a 10-4 deficit with a 9-0 run in which English scored five points and assisted on a basket by Odem.
Despite the loss, Steele said he was proud of what his players achieved this season. The Knights’ list of accomplishments included a third straight region championship, a program-best 29 wins and the first pair of consecutive state playoff wins in program history.
“We fought, we scratched, we clawed and came up short, but that doesn’t diminish what we’ve done this year,” Steele said. “I know it hurts right now, but time takes care of a lot of things, and in time we’ll be able to reflect and appreciate all the things we’ve done ... the past two or three years.
“They’re like my own children, more so than any team I’ve ever coached, and that’s no knock on any other team, I’ve loved them, too. ... That’s going to be the hardest thing for me, to let these kids go.”