Jacksonville’s showdown with Clarksville lived up to the hype as the Red Devils came through in the end with a 52-44 win in the state tournament semifinals.
Both thought to be the top two teams in Class 5A and two of the top overall teams in the state, the Red Devils had to fight to the last minute to outlast the Panthers.
But while the Panthers had five excellent starters, they had essentially no depth. The Clarksville starters only came out of the game Friday night against Forrest City when they suffered cramps in the fourth quarter. Cramps became an issue again late in the game against Jacksonville as the Red Devils pulled away down the stretch.
"I knew we had the depth and really I thought they’d slow down in the third," said Jacksonville coach Victor Joyner. "That shows their heart that it didn’t happen until late in the fourth. They missed some shots they made earlier when their legs were fresher."
Clarksville briefly led in the second quarter before a quick Jacksonville run made the score 27-27 at halftime.
"Really, I was expecting to be down by as many as ten points at halftime," said Joyner. "I got our kids ready for that because I knew their starters would still be good and would be playing against our second guys some. So being 27-27 was perfect for us."
Jacksonville began to turn up the defense in the third quarter, holding the Panthers to five points in the period.
A pair of jumpers by Aaron Smith and another by Justin McCleary gave the Red Devils a 44-34 lead early in the fourth quarter. Smith led Jacksonville with 16 points.
Clarksville fought back and pulled to within 45-44 with 2:13 remaining before Jacksonville regained control. Jacksonville didn’t allow a point from that point forward, while Sergio Berkley, Smith, McCleary and Keith Charleston each scored to secure the win for Jacksonville.
"To only have five kids do that in back to back games and push a team like us with our depth, that takes an incredible amount of heart, courage and desire," said Joyner. "I love my kids and they deserve this win, but those five kids deserve some recognition too."
Jacksonville’s second-round win over Wynne wasn’t nearly as suspenseful, with the Red Devils taking down the Yellowjackets 62-37.
The Red Devils held a 28-12 lead at halftime. The Yellowjackets came out running the court and pushing the pace in the third quarter. That strategy helped Wynne stay even with the Red Devils for the first six minutes, but eventually played into their hands. Jacksonville was able to beat the Wynne press without a turnover, keeping the lead around 17 points until the final minutes of the game when reserves on both sides came in.
Jacksonville’s Aaron Smith led all scorers with 18 points, with 17 of those coming in the first three quarters. Smith added five steals and four rebounds. Justin McCleary scored 15 points for the Devils while leading the team with seven rebounds.