The Jonesboro boys have heard all season that they’re not supposed to be good after the departure of high-scoring M.J. Walker.
Their message now, having achieved their sixth final four in nine years: We’re more than one player.
The No. 4-ranked Cardinals (23-8) dispatched Tri-Cities 72-64 in the Class AAAAAA quarterfinals Wednesday night, getting 32 points from Jamari Smith and avenging a December loss to the south Fulton County school before a packed house at the Jonesboro gym.
“We preached it all year – guys, we’re not supposed to be any good because M.J. is gone,” said Jonesboro coach Dan Maehlman. “That motivated them, because this is Jonesboro. This is a program. We don’t win because of one guy.”
The Cardinals got 11 points from Brandon Walker and 10 from Jermaine Smith, providing just enough threat to keep Tri-Cities (21-10) from selling out to stop Jamari Smith.
Jonesboro put the ball, and their season, in Smith’s hands, and he delivered, scoring 15 of his 32 points in the fourth quarter, 13 of them coming from the free-throw line.
“It was a really tough game,” Jamari Smtih said. “I haven’t been to the line as much as I was tonight. It was a lot of free throws.”
Jonesboro earned a spot opposite defending state champion Langston Hughes Saturday at the University of West Georgia.
Tri-Cities, the fourth seed out of Region 5-AAAAAA, had pulled upsets in the first two rounds and had an 83-67 win over Jonesboro in the Peach State Classic in December on its resume. The Bulldogs led for just over a minute for the entirety of the contest, but otherwise the Cardinals got out to an early lead and kept them at arm’s length.
“It’s a lot to live up to, really,” Smith said. “Jonesboro really has a winning culture. It’s a lot pride in this program.”
Playing a controlled pace, the Cardinals pushed out to 15-5 lead in the first seven minutes, and Tri-Cities got as close as three in the second period.
Jonesboro took a 33-29 lead to halftime, and the Bulldogs erased that in the first 1:24 of the second half, getting a basket and then a three-pointer from Damarcus Johnson to take their second lead.
Moments later, however, Jonesboro post man Jamari Mosely converted a three-point play to put the Cardinals up for good. The Cardinals led by as many as nine twice in the final period and Tri-Cities got no closer than five in the final period.
Johnson led Tri-Cities with 19 points and Eli Lawrence added 17.