Leader Blues

Friday, March 13, 2009

SPORTS >> For all the marbles

Leader sports editor

Nobody was thinking state championship last January when the Jacksonville Red Devils were limping along at 3-9. Nobody was even thinking state tournament.

All the Red Devils were thinking about at the time was winning the next game, rediscovering the joy of basketball and trying to learn the lessons of Victor Joyner’s coaching philosophy.

Since those days back in January of 2008, Jacksonville has gone 35-8. The Red Devils finished strong last season to earn a No. 3 seed in the 6A state tournament, where they were ousted by Benton in the quarterfinals.

Though they finished the year with a 14-14 record, they won 11 of their final 16 games. More importantly, they were beginning to gel as a unit, to understand that individual flash and dash is fine for the playground but deadly to a team.

Today at 7:45 p.m., Jacksonville will be going for its first-ever state basketball championship when it takes on 6A-East foe Little Rock Hall at the Summit Arena in Hot Springs. It will be the rubber game of the season series between the two teams, with Hall edging the Red Devils back in January, 58-55 and Jacksonville returning the favor with a 58-44 victory in Little Rock on Feb. 6.

“Like we said coming into this season, we knew we had talent, just like last year,” said Joyner, now in his fourth year at Jacksonville. “But it was our mindset that was our own worst enemy. To get them mentally to this point was the thing. Being mentally strong, accepting their roles, sharing.

“When they began to buy into that, then we began to gel as a team. They were this good last year, just not as cohesive.”

Almost all of that talent, by the way, returned from last year’s team. The Red Devils lost only point guard Terrell Eskridge to graduation. And with another year of seasoning for 6-6 defensive enforcer Demetrius Harris, these Red Devils look like a different team.

The Red Devils shared the 6A-East crown with Hall after both teams posted 13-1 league records. Jacksonville won the tiebreak and, with a No. 1 seed, had to come from behind in both the quarterfinals and the semifinals. The Devils were down at half to both Benton and West Memphis. They cruised in the second half to pull away for a 64-43 win over the Panthers.

Their task was much more treacherous against host team West Memphis, a team they had already beaten twice in the regular season. Jacksonville came back from 12 down at the half to post a 59-53 win.

“It’s good that you can pin your ears back and go to work when you need to,” Joyner said of his team’s resilience in the two tournament games. “They realized they had to buckle down defensively as a team.”

Hall had a close call in a 65-59 quarterfinal win over Pine Bluff before blowing past 6A-South champion Watson Chapel, 80-60.

There were a few hiccups out of the gate this year for the Red Devils, with early losses to Forrest City and North Pulaski, though the Mustangs reached the 5A semifinals while the Falcons will play for a state title earlier in the day today.

Their only other stumble came in a frustrating three-point loss to Hall, the defending 6A champs, at the Devils’ Den on Jan. 9 when the Red Devils missed 17 of 35 free throws.

Jacksonville has not lost since, avenging that loss to Hall along the way when it snapped the Warriors’ 28-game conference winning streak. The Red Devils carry a 14-game winning streak and a 23-3 record into the game while Hall won its final eight games and has posted a 28-2 record. The Warriors’ only other loss came by eight points to undefeated and nationally ranked Fayetteville, which will play for a 7A state title today. Hall led at the half in that one.

The difference between Jacksonville’s loss to the Warriors in January and its win the following month was more than a matter of free throws. In the loss, Jacksonville simply could not contain Baylor-bound point guard A.J. Walton, who consistently penetrated the lane for buckets, dishes and free-throw opportunities. He scored 23 in that one.

In the rematch, the Devils limited Walton to seven, while three-point shooting specialist Marland Smith couldn’t find the basket and struggled to a six-point night. Walton will be less than 100 percent today as he tries to come back from an injury that caused him to miss the last two weeks of the season.

“He’ll play,” insisted Hall coach George Cierks. “He played last weekend. He wasn’t going to, but we needed him down the stretch (in a quarterfinal win over Pine Bluff). But he’ll maybe be at 70 to 75 percent.”

While Joyner hardly minimizes Walton’s talent, he’s not so sure the Warriors aren’t in some ways stronger without him.

“In the film they sometimes look better without him on the court because everybody shares the ball a little more,” he said. “They relied a lot of A.J. and Marland. But they can all score. They’ve got the big boys that can step out and shoot a jumper. They’re a little more balanced.

“But we’ll prepare for them as we always do, try to play solid defense, contain the ball and just man up.”

While the Warriors primarily count on Smith and Walton, Joyner can rely on any one of a half dozen Devils to provide the firepower. They have proven go-to guys in Deshone McClure and Laquentin Miles, who have great range as well as penetration skills. And they have four inside enforcers who are also great offensive rebounders in Harris, Antwan Lockhart, Antonio Roy and Cortrell Eskridge.

That defense is what has carried the Red Devils, who sometimes can struggle in the half-court offense. They are allowing just 45 points a game, while scoring 56. Hall, meanwhile, is outscoring its opponents at a 60-47 clip.

“They’re just a good, solid ball club,” Cierks said of the Red Devils. “They have good guards, strong inside people that rebound well. They’re very formidable.”

While the stakes are high today, Joyner brings the same stoic, understated attitude into the game that his team displays on the court.

“They’ve never been cocky; they don’t boast,” he said. “We don’t allow them to boast. They just come out and work hard and play hard and whatever happens, happens. There are a lot of Christian kids here. They come out and play their best and, if God doesn’t bless you with a win, just be thankful to play the game.”