In just over 20 seconds, Statesboro’s Zaquavian Smith turned a nip-and-tuck contest into a game that the Blue Devils controlled throughout the final half.
After trailing in the opening minutes of Saturday’s Class AAAA second round state playoff matchup against Jonesboro at the Devil’s Den, Smith led a comeback charge. Smith followed up a monstrous dunk with a steal and a pull-up 3-pointer to give Statesboro a 10 point lead at the half.
The Devils kept up the momentum from there, notching a 76-69 victory and punching a ticket to next week’s Elite Eight.
“It was a great playoff environment tonight,” SHS coach Lee Hill said, acknowledging the tough competition as well as the near-capacity crowd. “You could really feel the excitement and the pressure. I thought that our guys responded well to that situation. We played a good game and found a way to win it.”
The Blue Devils (27-3) went up by as many as 17 points in the fourth quarter and, while the Cardinals (25-5) rallied to pull within striking distance, Statesboro was able to stay at arm’s length and run out the clock.
Smith led all scorers with 30 points for the Devils while Yakeem Coleman drilled five 3-pointers in contributing 21 points to the winning cause.
Statesboro has been a fixture in the Class AAAA top-10 poll throughout the year, but was in its first
Sweet Sixteen playoff matchup since the 2008-09 season. Jonesboro came into the game as a Final Four participant in each of the last two seasons, but the Devils’ skill was able to hold the Cardinals’ experience at bay.
“We knew that we were facing a team that had been there before,” Hill said. “Even when we got a lead, we knew that Jonesboro was going to keep fighting. It took all four quarters, but I was proud of our guys for staying in the game and not letting (Jonesboro) come back.”
Early on, the Cardinals were able to build a lead thanks in large part to second-chance points. Jonesboro continually launched ill-advised shots from long range, but Doby Okeke (8 points) and Daniel Peace (11) were able to muscle their way inside for offensive rebounds and putback buckets.
After finishing the first quarter with a slim 14-13 advantage, Statesboro started to show its chops as a No. 1 seed in the state tournament.
Smith hit a trio of shots in the lane and Jaylen Rawls connected on a turnaround jumper to extend the Blue Devils’ lead to five points before Smith’s huge jam off of a pass from O’Aaron Ware and his subsequent 3stirred the home crowd into a halftime frenzy.
Statesboro never let its lead drop below six points in the second half, but also never put the Cardinals away.
Another huge dunk from Smith — this time on an alley-oop from Coleman — put SHS up 52-40 after the third quarter, but Jonesboro, which went just 5-for-16 from behind the arc in the game, got three 3-pointers from Deantre Mack to keep things close in the final period.
The Devils’ lead was trimmed down to six with just under two minutes to go and some poor free throw shooting kept the game a two-possession affair for a while, but the Cardinals could pull no closer and a free throw from Smith with 17 seconds to go put the nail in Jonesboro’s coffin.
Statesboro now advances to a Feb. 27 Elite Eight matchup, but will have to hit the road as the Devils travel to Macon to take on fellow No. 1 seed Rutland.
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9404.