Ghylissa Knowles paced the Lady Tigers with 14 points. (Staff Photo by Christopher Dunn)

by Rob Grubbs

The Fayette County Tigers traveled to Clayton State on Tuesday night to begin conference play against the Jonesboro Cardinals, who were just added to Region 3-AAAAA this season.

The Cardinals have a rich basketball tradition. They finished in the Final Four last year in 6-A and won back-to-back state championships in 2014 and 2015. In games where both Tiger teams fell behind early, Fayette County stormed back in each to complete the sweep on the road.

Lady Tigers coach John Strickland is working through a transition with his current roster since a lot of experience graduated last season. While the roster is deep and talented, they are still learning to play together. The floor leader this year is senior guard Sydney Sims who can lead like a point guard, shoot like a two-guard, drive to the basket like a small forward, and rebound like a post player. Her leadership role on the team will be key in how far they get into the postseason.

After falling behind to the Lady Cardinals 14-11 at the end of the first quarter, the Tigers went on a 15-8 run in the second, powered by the shooting of Derique Donigan and Kamille Carpenter to gain a 26-22 lead.

It was still a four-point game, with 3:38 left in the third, when the Tigers made their move. It started on the defensive end when Carpenter blocked a shot, which led to a Sims layup and back-to-back 3-pointers. Carpenter and sophomore Ghylissa Knowles knocked down the triples and suddenly it was an 11-point Fayette County lead.

Knowles led the team with 14 points, Sims scored 11, and Donigan added 10.

With Jonesboro behind, the Cardinals were forced to foul down the stretch, but the Tigers clinched the game by going 6-for-6 from the free-throw line late en route to a 48-37 win.

“We are trying to figure out who we are. It is going to take about 15 games into the seasons to know where we are,” Strickland said. “Tonight, our senior leadership showed up. Jonesboro got the lead on us, and our seniors did a good job of regain composure for the win.”

For Sims, who looked up the seniors last year, she is now the leader. She said afterwards, “I just have to stand up and take that leadership role, it is a balance of leading of them and then letting them play their game.”

In the boys’ game, Tigers head coach Andre Flynn faced off against Jonesboro head coach Daniel Maehlman. Both men are longtime coaches at their schools and two of the best on the southside of Atlanta.

This is a different year for Maehlman.

“We lost a lot, probably the most we have lost in a long time, four starters and seen seniors, three of those starters had played together for a long time, with a lot of experience. So, we have one kid with a ton of experience and bunch that are trying to find their way right now.”

Fayette County likes to play fast and run the court constantly, but the Cardinals forced them into a slower pace from the start. The strategy played out well as Jonesboro had an 8-1 lead halfway through the first quarter.

The Tigers pulled even at the end of the period, only to see the Cardinals go on a 5-0 run to start the second. Once again, the Tigers slowly pulled back even. Dakota Leffew had a shot blocked, but gathered the rebound and put the ball back in to retake the lead. Neither team could make a sustained run and Fayette closed the half out with a three-point lead, 27-24, after a long jumper from Kingston Calhoun.

The Tigers started the third quarter strong. Sharpshooter Ricky Knight hit a three and later Josh Dupree extended the lead to seven points. But, the young Cardinals were growing up fast and they went on a 13-5 run after Quinn Thomas scored off a steal. Jonesboro was back in the lead at 40-39. With the game on the line in the fourth quarter, the Tiger defense was up for the challenge and forced six straight stops.

When the dust had settled, the Cardinals were down seven again with 23 seconds left. They almost completed the miraculous comeback via a quick basket by Dushawn Ellerbe and a 3-pointer by Quinn Thomas. This brought them to within two points. With 2.3 seconds remaining, the Cardinals got the final shot. After a Fayette missed free throw, Leffew hit what would have been the game-winning three, just a few moments after the buzzer sounded.

“There are certain possessions in games that are critical, and our guys don’t realize how critical they are yet,” Maehlman said. “We had five or six of those in the fourth quarter when it was a tie game or a two-point game where we didn’t get very good shots. We settled for the three way too much.”

Flynn was happy with the outcome and effort.

“I am very pleased. Jonesboro was in the final four of 6-A last year, they won state twice, and Coach Maehlman does a heck of a job coaching them. They are very patient to be so athletic, everyone knows we want to run so what they did was slowed things down and tried to get good shots. I thought we played good defense near the end. I am so proud of the guys, one of the things we talk about is finishing. I thought we kept our composure and finish the drill.”

Dupree led a balanced Tiger offense with 13 points while Greg Smith had 11 points and 6 rebounds and Will Richard added 10 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists.