Leader Blues

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

SPORTS >> Devils get their due

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

HOT SPRINGS — Deshone McClure almost ran out of time, almost lost the ball, almost passed it off to a teammate.

Almost.

Instead, Jacksonville’s junior guard was able to launch a three-point shot with 1.2 seconds left and his Red Devils trailing by a point to Little Rock Hall in the 6A state championship.

McClure missed the shot but drew the foul. He made the first to tie it, missed the second, then calmly sank the third as Jacksonville defeated the Warriors, 63-62, on Saturday night at the Summit Arena, bringing the Red Devils their first-ever state basketball championship.

“I give honor to my God,” said Jacksonville coach Victor Joyner. “These guys showed a lot of heart. I was thinking after he missed the (second free throw): Overtime, my kids are about out of gas and that means four more minutes of A.J. Walton. And I didn’t want none of that.”

Walton had just made a pair of free throws with 7.8 seconds left that fully wiped what had been just four minutes earlier a 12-point Jacksonville lead and put the Warriors on top 62-61.

Jacksonville, out of time outs, got the ball in to McClure, who dribbled furiously between Hall defenders, nearly lost the ball as he crossed the timeline, found a seam near the top of the circle and launched a leaning three-pointer. David Rivers, reaching over the top from behind, was whistled for the foul.

“Coach told me to get the ball and don’t stop,” McClure said. “I almost lost it and I almost passed it, but Coach told me to go and don’t stop. If we’re going tot lose, we’re going to lose it because of me.”

For the defending champion Warriors, who finished the season 28-3, it was a bitterly disappointing loss.

“We’re disappointed it didn’t come out the way we wanted it to come out,” said Hall coach George Cirks, whose team suffered two of its three losses to the Red Devils. “But we’re part of the fault for that and I was a big part of the fault for that by some things we just didn’t get accomplished.”

As for the foul on Rivers, Cirks only said that he’s seen it called and he’s seen it not called in that situation.

“Referees do different things,” he said. “I’ve seen them let that go at the end of the game with one second left. But I don’t get into trying to call the game. They made the call so we have to live with it.”

The Red Devils won their final 15 games of the season after falling to Hall at home back in early January. They finished 24-3.

Jacksonville won the game despite committing 24 turnovers, which Hall converted into 28 points. Those turnovers largely allowed the cold-shooting Warriors to stay close, despite losing the rebounding battle by 16. The Baylor-bound Walton turned in a courageous performance after coming into the game at what his coach estimated was 70-75 percent following a high-ankle sprain three weeks ago. Walton, who came into the game making only 33 percent of his three-pointers, knocked down 4 of 7 on Saturday and scored 15 of his game-high 24 points over the final 5:48 of the game.

“What about A.J. Walton?” Joyner said. “That kid’s got a big heart. He showed why he’s a Division I player. He’s got no quit in him and he almost single-handedly carried his team to a state title. Big kudos to A.J. and to Hall. They have a lot of class over there and showed a lot of character.”

But it was McClure who took home the Most Valuable Player honors after scoring 17 points. Demetrius Harris was also an MVP candidate after making 9 of 14 shots on his way to 20 points and 10 rebounds.

McClure’s evolution as a player over the past 14 months coincided with Jacksonville’s rise from the ashes of a 3-9 record start to their 2007-08 season. The Red Devils were beset by turmoil and Joyner struggled to harness the enormous talent on his team into a cohesive unit.

McClure was one of several Red Devils who had developed a reputation for trying to do too much by himself. But he, along with his teammates, began to buy into Joyner’s team concept during last year’s conference season, and on Saturday night, McClure took only six shots, making five of them, including 3 of 4 three-pointers. He also handed out two assists.

“I thought last year these kids underachieved,” said Joyner, whose 2007-08 Red Devils were eliminated in the quarterfinals at state. “We had a lot of infighting, a lot of things we were trying to work through personally. But for the most part, all year, these kids have given it up for each other. They respect each other and they’ve grown closer as teammates.

“But they’re still competitive. They want you to stop this guy, they want you to get up there and get this rebound. And they’ll get up in each other’s face and tell each other. And there’s nothing wrong with that as long as you handle it the right way.”

Many of the Red Devils’ early turnovers were the result of carelessness and mental errors. In the second half, Hall turned up the pressure, extending a 1-3-1 trap that dealt fits to Jacksonville throughout the third and fourth periods. It became a real issue when Cortrell Eskridge got poked in the eye and had to leave the game. That left the Appleby brothers — 5-8 Stanley and 5-10 Raheem — trying to battle the much-taller Hall defenders out top.

The Red Devils couldn’t have gotten off to a much better start with McClure knocking down two three-pointers in the opening two minutes as Jacksonville rushed out to an 11-1 start. But Walton hit a three and Hall sharp-shooter Marland Smith hit two more as Hall surged to a 15-14 lead after one.

Jacksonville regained the lead at 27-21 on a three-pointer from Raheem Appleby, but Hall trailed by only a single point after a Jacksonville turnover at midcourt with five seconds left led to a bucket and free throw.

Jacksonville, which dominated the glass behind 10 rebounds by both Harris and LaQuintin Miles, got rebound baskets by Antwan Lockhart, Harris and Cortrell Eskridge to open the second half. After McClure knocked down his third three of the game, Jacksonville got breakaway jams by McClure and Lockhart. Miles’ drive, basket and free throw opened up a 45-34 Jacksonville lead late in the third.

Over the first two minutes and 33 seconds of the fourth period, Stanley Appleby gave the Red Devils some unexpected offensive punch when he scored seven consecutive points and Jacksonville had its biggest lead of the game at 52-39. Walton, Smith and David Rivers kept Hall hanging around, though, and they chipped away as Jacksonville began to wilt in the face of Hall’s relentless defensive pressure.

Walton’s three-pointer with 41 seconds left drew the Warriors to within 61-59. After another steal, he hit one of two free throws to whittle the margin to one with 36 seconds left.

Miles missed the front end of a one-and-one with 28 seconds left and Walton drove the lane at the other end, drew the foul and made both free throws with 7.8 seconds left.

“It’s just an honor for my team to be here,” said a red-eyed Cirks afterward. “To get this opportunity two years in a row.”