Saturday, March 09, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> Jacksonville holds back Alma

Leader sports editor

The Jacksonville Red Devils hoisted the championship trophy for the second time in five years Friday at Barton Coliseum after holding on for dear life in 56-53 victory over the Alma Airedales. It was a matter of Jacksonville’s four minutes in the second half was a little bit better than Alma’s other 12. The Red Devils stormed out of the halftime with a big run that led to a 17-point lead, and Sergio Berkley hit two free throws with 26 seconds remaining to set the final margin. Alma had one last shot. Senior Brock Widders, who nearly single-handedly brought Alma back from a huge third-quarter deficit, missed a three pointer under heavy pressure and Jacksonville’s Keith Charleston pulled down the rebound with four seconds remaining. Alma decided not to foul, and time ran out as Charleston hurled the ball to teammate Kevin Richardson to begin the celebration.

“Jacksonville coach Vic Joyner had one word for his emotions after the game. “Elated,” Joyner said. “I’m enjoying this one more than the first one because of how far this team has come. Early in the year we were not taking care of the ball, playing soft at times. When we got out of McClellan with that win, and didn’t turn it over against that press, I knew we turned the corner.”

“It feels good,” Jacksonville senior and championship game Most Valuable Player Justin McCleary said. “This is what we’ve worked so hard for. It’s unbelievable. It’s surreal, just surreal. It’s hard to believe it’s all over but that was the last one. That’s what all the hard work was for so it feels good to get that accomplishment.”

Jacksonville (25-4) put together a third-quarter blitz that blew open what was a close game at halftime. The Red Devils led just 24-21 at intermission, but scored 20 points in four minutes and took a 44-27 lead. It started when Alma (24-7) tried again to isolate senior guard Gage Jensen on McCleary. The Jacksonville point guard picked Jensen clean and hit Berkley for a layup. After another defensive stop, Charleston posted up guard Brandon Cadelaria in a mismatch and scored to give the Red Devils their biggest lead up to that point at 30-23.

McCleary later got another steal and a plus-one layup that made it 35-25 with 5:45 left in the third. Alma called timeout, but it didn’t stop Jacksonville’s momentum. Senior Aaron Smith hit a three pointer to make it 38-25 before Widders scored the first of his 24 second-half points. The run finally ended with back-to-back baskets by Charleston, the second a two-handed slam after a steal by Richardson that made it 44-27 with 3:41 left in the third quarter.

“Coach just told us to go out there and play hard,” Charleston said. “We didn’t play as hard as we could have in the first half and coach was yelling at us.”

Alma coach Stan Flenor wasn’t surprised by the Red Devils’ run.

“I think their athleticism got to us a little bit there,” Flenor said. “Those kinds of runs are going to happen. We knew there would be one. I’m so proud of how hard my guys fought to get back in it.”

And get back in it Alma did.the Airedales weren’t ready to concede, at least Widders wasn’t. The 6-foot-4 guard/forward put the Airedales on his back and led a furious comeback that had Jacksonville’s lead down to one point 26 seconds left in the game.

Widder scored 20 of Alma’s next 22 points and finished the second half with 24 of the team’s 32 points.

McCleary attributed Alma’s comeback to excellent offensive execution by Alma.

“They just have lots of different disguises for the same play,” McCleary said. “They ran it well and just got open shots on us a few times. And of course number 23 (Widders) was knocking them down.”

Smith admitted that fatigue may have been a factor.

“We usually play a lot of guys a lot of minutes, but we had the starting five out there most of the time,” Smith said. “I think we just needed to regroup and get our second wind. We finally were able to do that.”

Jacksonville didn’t help itself by missing several big free throws that could have put the game away much earlier. The Red Devils missed six of their first seven free throws in the fourth quarter, three of which were the front end of one-and-ones while Alma was purposefully fouling to extend the game.

“I think we were a little bit tired,” McCleary said.

Jacksonville made its final three foul shots in the last minute, including Berkley’s two at the end, making up for missing one of the front ends earlier in the quarter.

Jacksonville chose not to force the tempo in the first half, electing to walk up and down the floor with the Airedales. The Red Devils shot poorly, but relentless rebounding resulted in several second-chance points and an early 12-7 lead. Alma then went on a 6-0 run and took its first lead of the game with 45 seconds left in the first quarter.

Jacksonville held for the last shot. McCleary’s 17-footer from the right baseline sailed over the rim, but Smith was in position for the rebound. His 12-footer from the left baseline found nothing but net, giving the Red Devils a 14-13 lead heading into the second quarter of play.

The pace dipped even more in the second period, slowing to a crawl at times. Alma tried to isolate Jensen and put him in one-on-one situations with McCleary, but the strategy didn’t work. McCleary picked Jensen’s pocket twice early in the quarter, but the Red Devils failed to produce any points off either turnover.

McCleary admitted being surprised by the Airedale’s strategy to try to take him one-on-one with Jensen.

“It did surprise me,” McCleary said. “I feel like I’m a pretty good defender so I took it as a challenge. I just wanted to do my job.”

A short jumper by Berkley and a one-of-two trip to the line by Charleston gave the Red Devils a 17-13 lead, but that was quickly erased by two Alma possessions.

The Airedales tied the game with four minutes left in the first half. Smith gave Jacksonville the lead back with two more free throws, but Alma took its second lead of the game on a bucket by Jake Folkerts. With 1:31 left in the half, Alma led 21-20, but Jacksonville would get the final four points.

Leading 22-21, the Airedales tried to isolate Jensen again, and again McCleary picked him clean. This time Jensen stood still instead of trying to get back on defense, and McCleary made a wide-open, uncontested layup to send the Red Devils to the locker room with a 24-21 advantage.

Smith led Jacksonville with 17 points. Berkley scored 14 and Charleston 13. McCleary finished with nine points, five assists, five rebounds and four steals.