CARROLLTON — Foul trouble and Jonesboro’s second-half offensive excellence proved too tough a combination for No. 7 Liberty County in its 71-43 loss in the Class AAAA Final Four on Saturday at the University of West Georgia Coliseum.
Jonesboro, which lost its only game of the season in its second game to a tough Florida team, came in with a 30-game winning streak and showed why it earned that in the last two quarters Saturday. The younger Panthers (24-5) were outscored 36-15 in the second half as the seasoned Cardinals (31-1) moved into their second-straight state-title game.
“The score certainly isn’t indicative of our season,” said Panthers coach Willie Graham, who guided LCHS to the final four for the third time in his tenure and the first since 2007. “Jonesboro, the defending state champion in AAAA, starts three seniors. We start three sophomores and two juniors, so we played against a very good basketball team. We knew that we had to stay within our game plan and what we do, and in the second half we kind got away from that game plan. Jonesboro was able to put in some baskets and we were missing shots. Jonesboro is a team that you have to match basket for basket.
“It’s been a great season, though. These kids have grown up a lot, and they certainly have surprised me making it this far.”
The teams traded baskets early on. Liberty sophomore guard Richard LeCounte hit 3-pointer as time expired to give Liberty a 19-18 lead at the end of the first quarter.
Jonesboro’s M.J. Walker Jr. notched a couple alley-oop slam dunks to start the second quarter, taking the Cardinals on 7-0 run. Liberty responded by knocking down a few shots, including in transition.
Trailing 35-28 at the end of the half, Graham felt the Panthers were in a position to make a run at the end.
“At halftime, I told them we were fine. We just had to come out and keep playing hard,” he said. “Fouls started hurting us towards the end of the half, and we were a little too reluctant to get players off the floor a little quicker.”
That foul trouble kept Liberty in a wide 2-3 zone during the second half, which took away some the aggressiveness that the Panthers rely on to create offense. After the teams traded baskets early in the third quarter, Walker struck again, hitting a couple of 3-pointers to put Jonesboro up 41-34, which gave the Cardinals the momentum to break open the game.
Jonesboro’s defensive strategy of shadowing LeCounte and sophomore point guard Davion Mitchell started to work in the second half. Turnovers and missed shots also stymied the Panthers offense. Meanwhile, the Cardinals’ patient offense continued to work, creating continual movement that usually resulted in a layup.
“In the second half, we simply got away from the game plan,” Graham said. “Tyriq Reece hit some good shots for us and we had been moving the ball into the post to JiShaun Harris, but we got nervous started firing and missing 3-pointers and shooting jump shots that didn’t fall.”
The Panthers, who last year lost on a 3-pointer at the buzzer to Crisp County in the first round of the state tournament, turned some heads this season, especially with the strong sophomore backcourt of LeCounte and Mitchell.
“This has been a great season. We wanted to get Macon, but next year we will,” LeCounte said. “Davion (Mitchell) and I have been playing basketball, baseball, football and running track since we were old enough to walk. It’s just the way we play; we have spent so much time together we know what the other is going to do on the court.”
Jonesboro will play Carrolton for the state title at 8:45 p.m. Thursday. Carrolton defeated Cairo, 48-45, in the other AAAA semifinal.
Graham, who is in his 30thyear in the Liberty County School System, is contemplating whether to return for another next season.
“I told the team that this may be it for me,” he said. “I have been really blessed and had a great career and this has been a great season. These boys have worked hard and come a long way. I am really proud of them and how hard they have worked and how they have represented the coaching staff, school and the community. It’s getting about time to hang it up, though. I haven’t decided anything yet, but it’s definitely something that I have been thinking about.”
AAAA Final Four
Saturday in Carrollton
Jonesboro 73, Liberty County 41
Jonesboro 18 17 11 25-73
Liberty Co. 19 9 8 7-41
Jonesboro scoring — M.J. Walker 30, Tracy Heeter, Jr. 21, Austin Donaldson 14, Toriq Jenkins 2, Jesse Buckner 2, Jyair Mincg 1, Kenneth Qualls 1.
Liberty scoring — Tyriq Reece 13, Davion Mitchell 11, Richard LeCounte 10, Jaalon Frazier 5, JiShaun Harris 3, Tyrean Freeman 1.