Leader Blues

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

SPORTS >> Talented Jacksonville comes of age against Hall

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

Thirteen months ago, the Jacksonville Red Devils were reeling.

Having lost three times already to cross-county rival North Pulaski, the Red Devils, comprised of one senior leader and a whole lot of underclassmen, entered the New Year and the 6A-East Conference race with a 3-9 record.

The youthful Devils posted home wins over Marion and Forrest City to begin a turnaround that eventually landed them a No. 3 seed in the state tournament last March.

Though Jacksonville did reach the state quarterfinals last year after posting a 10-4 league record, the Red Devils never fully cohered as a team and were often given to individual flourishes and look-at-me showmanship.

Keep in mind this is a team that has all the ingredients, the one exception perhaps being a true point guard to run the show. But depth, balance, size, athleticism, hops, scoring, shot blocking, rebounding … yeah, the Red Devils have all that in abundance. From the interior play of Demetrius Harris, Antwan Lockhart, Antonio Roy and Cortrell Eskridge to the outside shooting and penetration of Laquinton Miles and Deshone McClure to heady role players such as Darius Morant, Stan Appleby and Cailen Davis, this club is loaded.

But early this season, Joyner’s frustrations with his immensely talented club boiled over at times, never more so than when the Red Devils let one get away at home against 6A defending champion Little Rock Hall on Jan. 9.

“We’ve got to make better decisions down the stretch,” Joyner said shortly after that 58-55 loss to the Warriors. “That’s what Hall does is put pressure on your guards. Our post men were stepping up early and we were hitting the post. Then we started overdribbling. You got guys driving down the lane and doing crossovers and trying to get the ‘and-one’ instead off passing the ball off.

“Monday, that’s going to stop. We’re that close, but we just didn’t play smart.”

Apparently, Joyner made his point. The Red Devils haven’t lost since. Their fifth-straight victory was their most impressive yet — a 58-44 road win at Hall last Friday in a game in which they trailed only once and dominated over the final 12 minutes. They improved to 13-3 overall, 6-1 in the league.

Joyner maintains that those struggling 3-9 Red Devils of a season ago never felt the pressure to win. Instead, he said, the coaches chose to stress something else.

“We were trying to change their mindset about the classroom,” he said. “If they could handle that part, handle their grades, the basketball would take care of itself. We wanted them to try to make something out of themselves, to be productive, to try to get to college.

“Now, almost all these kids are doing what they need to do.”

Their grades are all up and so is their on-court production and maturity. Deshone McClure, perhaps, provides the best example. An immensely talented sophomore last year, McClure could wow his coaches on one possession and have them tearing at their hair on the next.

McClure, like just about everybody else on this balanced club, has come to realize that there is plenty of scoring to go around. He has taken a back seat offensively on several nights throughout the early conference season. Against Hall, McClure scored 13 points, but also dished out six assists.

“The best thing about this is we won it as a team,” he said afterward.

While the unselfishness has continued to develop, so too has the maturity level. Part of that might harken back to those early 2007-08 struggles, which helped forge a toughness. Much of it has to do with being battle-tested in the rugged 6A-East.

“When you play the caliber teams we’re playing, in the electric atmospheres like at Hall, the game slows down for those kids,” Joyner said. “They’ve been in those situations so many times, they’re able to keep their calm.”

While Hall was fighting to get back in the game on Friday, Jacksonville was not sitting on its lead, but continuing to push the action. That’s the sign of a confident team. It’s the sign of something else, too, Joyner said.

“These kids are trying to get to college,” he said. “They want to win championships, but these kids knew there were a lot of college coaches in the stands and they’re trying to make their own legacy. Hall and (Baylor-bound point guard) A.J. Walton already got it. But Jacksonville, people don’t expect them to do what they’re doing.

“They’re just looking for a little respect.”

They found it in Hall head coach George Cierks, whose team suffered its first conference loss in more than two years on Friday night.

“They’re a good basketball team,” he said. “They’ll be hard for anybody to beat if they keep that intensity.”

And keep taking care of all their other business.

The Red Devils have already beaten Parkview, West Memphis and Hall, but the road ahead remains treacherous, beginning with last night’s rematch with the Patriots. Bring it on, seems to be the attitude of the Red Devils.

“We ain’t done yet,” McClure said. “We’re just getting started. We got to go for them rings.”