The Jacksonville Red Devils withstood a furious comeback by Alma to win their second state championship under coach Victor Joyner, a 56-53 nail-biter over the Alma Airedales.
The Red Devils seemed to have everything under control in the final minutes of the third quarter, taking a 46-29 lead. Jacksonville led 24-21 at halftime.
Being down by 17 was the point when Alma’s Brock Widders began to take over for the Airedales.
Widders made a pair of threes and a layup in the final minute of the third quarters. He scored 20 of Alma’s next 22 points, including four three-pointers, as the Airedales cut Jacksonville’s lead to three points.
“We had our best defenders on him and he just hit everything,” said Joyner. “When somebody that good gets that hot, you have to try and keep up. You know a team like that is going to make a run in the championship game. I‘m proud of how we kept our composure out there.”
Jacksonville helped out Alma in the fourth quarter by making just two of eight free throws during one two-minute stretch. The Red Devils made 17 of 29 free throws, while the more jump shot focused Airedales were five of nine.
Alma pulled within one at 54-53 with 30 seconds left to play. Sergio Berkley broke Jacksonville’s free throw streak by making a pair with :20.5 remaining in the game.
Those free throws insured Alma would need another three-pointer to tie the game and couldn’t win with one shot. Widders was able to get off a contested shot at the end, but it was just long off the back rim as time expired.
Alma’s first lead came in the final minute of the first quarter, 13-12 on a three by Widders. That lead didn’t last through the end of the quarter however, as Aaron Smith knocked down a jumper at the buzzer. Alma also briefly led 21-20 in the second quarter.
Smith led Jacksonville with 17 points, while Berkley scored 14 points. Keith Charleston added 13 points and 10 rebounds. Justin McCleary was named the game’s MVP with nine points, five rebounds, and four assists while being the primary ball handler. Kevin Richardson had three points for Jacksonville.
Jacksonville shot a slightly lower percentage from the field than Alma, but made up for that with points off of Alma turnovers.
“Jacksonville is such an athletic team,” said Alma coach Stan Flenor. “They hurt us with their quickness and on the boards. I was proud we were able to hang around and make that run.”
The Red Devils finished the season with a 26-4 overall record. Jacksonville lost twice by single digits to North Little Rock, the 7A champion and ranked in the top 20 in the country, a close loss to Jonesboro, who narrowly lost to Little Rock Hall in the 6A title game, and at Mills, a playoff team that was red hot that night.
“It has been a heck of a season,” said Joyner. “These kids have worked so hard all year long. Every one of them on the court and every one on the bench. That’s why we could play 10 or 12 or all 15 guys so often during the season. They all worked so hard during practice to contribute and help each other get better.”