Did You Know: MJ Walker Jr. was a football standout at Jonesboro before deciding to focus on basketball his junior and upcoming senior season.
R4 #1 Jonesboro (28-4)
Potential pitfalls checkered No. 1 Jonesboro’s path to Macon but it hasn’t stopped the Cardinals from soaring to a potential three-peat. Jonesboro opened the year with a bumpy start, dropping its first two games of the season to AAAAAA No. 3 Norcross and Wesleyan Christian Academy (NC). With Austin Donaldson (GSU) and Tracy Hector (KSU) both graduated it looked as if the Cardinals’ reign of dominance was finally coming to an end. MJ Walker Jr. had different ideas. The star junior brought his game to the next level and has averaged 22.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists while leading Jonesboro to a perfect mark in Region 4. Talented teams such as No. 6 Walnut Grove, No. 7 Eagle’s Landing and Henry County all had chances to knock the Cardinals from their perch but were unable to as Jonesboro turned them all back. Playing the best of the best has helped mold Coach Daniel Maehlman’s tough-nosed team into a machine. Jonesboro took third-place in the MaxPreps Holiday Classic, their only loss coming to the nation’s No. 1 ranked team, undefeated Chino Hills (CA) 124-93. In the state tournament, potential matchup problems proved to be no worries. They blasted Worth County 81-47, who was led by 6-foot-8 Auburn signee Anfernee McLemore and Brandon Moore. In round two, an emotional state championship rematch presented itself. The Cardinals dispatched of Carrollton last year 55-50 in the title game and this year broke the Trojans’ heart again with a 51-50 win. Looking like Carrollton finally exposed a vulnerability in the Cardinals, instead Jonesboro drilled No. 8 St. Pius in the Sweet 16. Last year the Golden Lions fell 67-57 in round two, this year the Cardinals left no doubt by doubling their margin of victory, winning 57-37. No. 3 Grady was the next Region 6 team to test the Cardinals in the Final Four powered by Bucknell-commit Avi Toomer averaging 23.6 points per game but again it was Jonesboro beating Grady at their own game by outscoring them 77-49, holding Toomer to 17. Walker and Tariq Jenkins both pumped in 22 points while Eric Lovett added 10.
R3 #1 Liberty County (27-1)
The Panthers were one of the many teams that fell at the hands of Jonesboro last season, losing 71-43 in the Final Four. This time, it’s No. 2 Liberty County trying to turn the tables and break No. 1 Jonesboro’s spell over the rest of Class AAAA. Coach Julian Stokes sees Coach Daniel Maehlman’s MJ Walker Jr. and he raises him with a star junior of his own, Davion Mitchell. Mitchell, an Auburn-commit, is an electrifying guard netting over 24 points per game and more than seven assists. He and junior Richard LeCounte, a five-star UGA football-commit, power a devastating Panther offense that jumped out on No. 4 Lithonia 16-0 in their 81-68 Final Four victory. Mitchell dropped game-high 33 points while LeCounte tacked on 19. A key to their evolution from being a good team to a great team has been the development of Will Richardson as a reliable third option. He scores 13 points per game as a sophomore, leaving the future looking extremely bright for Liberty County. They have won 25-straight games including playoff wins over Columbia (78-60) and Monroe (71-61) in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. Their only loss came back on Dec. 5, the third game of the season losing to Statesboro 75-74 in double overtime. Last year in their semifinal loss to Jonesboro, the Panthers held a 19-18 lead after one but were outscored 53-24 the rest of the way. Mitchell was kept in check by the stifling Cardinal defense. He finished with 11 points on 4-of-15 shooting while committing four turnovers. LeCounte didn’t fare much better, tacking on 10 points on 4-of-10 shooting. On the other side, Walker torched the Panthers for 30 points and five assists. Coach Stokes is in his first year as the head man after Coach Willie Graham resigned following last season. He will need to devise a game plan to get Mitchell open looks while slowing down Walker on the other end.