Friday, February 24, 2012

SPORTS >> Red Devils claw back for victory

Leader sports editor

Maybe there was a motivational disparity, maybe the home team was distracted by senior-night festivities. Whatever the reason, Jacksonville trudged through the first half of its final home game on Tuesday against West Memphis. The Red Devils were able to overcome the big halftime deficit and survive the scare with a 49-43 win over the Blue Devils.

Jacksonville entered the final week of the regular season knowing it had the No. 2 seed locked up in the 6A state tournament regardless of what happened in its last two games.

West Memphis entered the game needing to win one of its last two games in order to qualify for the class 7A state tournament.

Whatever the reason for the slow start and narrow escape from a team it handled easily earlier this season at West Memphis, Jacksonville coach Victor Joyner didn’t bother to speculate.

“Why do teenagers do anything,” Joyner said. “You tell me why teenagers act like they do and we’ll both get rich.”

There was some strategy behind the turnaround and there may be something to the rumor that West Memphis has underachieved this year and was finally playing up to its potential on Tuesday.

Jacksonville (22-4, 11-2)opened the game in man-to-man defense and was beat soundly on the inside by the much taller Blue Devil team. Joyner opted for a 2-3 zone in the second half and that effectively eliminated West Memphis’ inside presence.

Jacksonville is a relatively big high school team and usually dominated on the inside. West Memphis, though, has three starters taller than Jacksonville’s tallest player.

“We had to go zone to take away that inside game,” Joyner said. “We wanted to force them to have to shoot from the perimeter and they didn’t shoot it very well. I think they only made one or two shots from outside the whole second half.”

West Memphis jumped ahead with early dominance inside, but broke the lead into double digits for the first team with its perimeter defense. Guard Latrelle Cunningham got back-to-back steals and layups to give the Blue Devils a 16-5 lead with 1:21 left in the first quarter. Joyner went to his bench for wholesale substitutions and the second five ended the period well, scoring the last five points of the quarter.

Kevin Richardson hit a driving floater and Crushawn Hayes hit a 35-footer at the buzzer to make it 16-10.

Joyner stayed with the second five to start the second quarter and they closed the gap to 18-14 when the starting five re-entered the game with 5:42 left in the half.

From that point, West Memphis outscored Jacksonville 10-3 to take a 28-17 lead into the break.

The Red Devils came out in the zone defense in the third quarter and executed on offense much better. Jacksonville went on an 11-2 that made it 30-28 with 4:10 left in the quarter. West Memphis was able to hold Jacksonville at bay for a little while longer, but once the Red Devils took their first lead with 5:59 left in the game, they never trailed again.

Senior guard Dwayne Waller gave Jacksonville its first lead when he hit two free throws that put Jacksonville up 36-35.

West Memphis tied it at 39 when an out-of-position official got in the way. With Jacksonville in a half court set and leading 39-37, an official got too deep down the sideline, causing Red Devil guard James Aikens to dribble the ball off the referee’s foot. Aikens also couldn’t give chase because the official was in the way, clearing the way for Cunningham to scoop it up and hit an uncontested layup.

Jacksonville overcame the bad luck at the free-throw line. Junior guard Justin McCleary scored Jacksonville’s only field goal of the fourth quarter, while he and his teammates combined to hit 13 of 15 foul shots in the final period. They had made just two of five attempts in the first three quarters.

West Memphis (17-9, 6-7) was also good from the line, making 12 of 14 attempts in the game.

McCleary led Jacksonville with 13 points while Tirrell Brown scored 11. Waller was scoreless in the first half but finished with eight points. Jalen Jackson led West Memphis with 15 points while Willie Atwood added 13.

Jacksonville played Mountain Home to close the regular season on Friday. West Memphis hosted Little Rock Parkview.