By now, Jackson’s opponents must know about Gabbi Cartagena — if not by name, then by her No. 12 jersey or her distinctive hairstyle. No matter how they identify her, this much remains true: They haven’t figured out how to stop her.
Add Monticello to the list of those who couldn’t contain the Jackson junior this young season. She had 27 points and Kenyata Smith added 19 as the Lady Devils beat their visiting rivals 54-39 before a packed house Saturday.
She entered this week needing only 123 points to reach 1,000 for her high school career. Her ability to get baskets in bunches led to another chapter of improvement in Karisma Boykin’s second season as coach, capping off a week in which they won two of three games. They also beat Lamar County 67-65 on a last-second layup by Jeniah Smith. Spalding beat them 67-40 in the third annual Jag Challenge, but that’s a team that won 25 of 31 games last season, stomping all the way to the Class AAAA championship game, where they lost to Carver.
That was clearly a step up for the fledgling Lady Devils, a still-young team building off the other end of the spectrum — a 7-18 season — but they’re buying into Boykin’s way of doing things and it has paid early dividends. They went into Tuesday’s Region 4-AAA opener against Rutland with a 3-2 record.
“We’re coming along,” Boykin said. “I think with us winning a few games early, it’s giving those girls confidence. They’re starting to believe in themselves and they do understand that we have a lot of work to do… They’re growing and having fun with it now. This summer helped us a lot, playing those two or three games a day… It’s 100% better than last year. They’re buying in, every single player. I don’t have to worry about who’s not showing up for practice, I don’t care how early it is. I could have a 6 a.m. practice and all my kids will be there.”
If the Lady Devils can develop a reliable third option after Cartagena and Kenyata Smith, they could quickly improve by leaps and bounds. Jada Cummings has shown flashes of building on her freshman playing time from last season.
The boys team is also pursuing leaps-and-bounds improvement, but didn’t fare as well against Monticello. The Red Devils spent most of the game playing catch-up, and once they momentarily achieved their goal, the Hurricanes pulled away for 75-66 victory.
Offense in general, and free-throw shooting in specific, have been weaknesses that Jackson coach Virgil Amey has sought to shore up.
The Red Devils trailed by 13 points with 2:10 left in the first half. But led by Jamal Collier, who had a team-high 18 points, they rallied to catch Monticello at 46-all midway through the third quarter. The comeback took a lot out of them, however, and it was reflected at the free-throw line.
They made 17 of 36 overall, but only 6 of 19 after tying the score. That allowed Monticello to rebuild its lead to 13 on two occasions and, with freshman Marcus Whitlock putting the final touches on his 28-point night, the Hurricanes weren’t threatened thereafter.
“We’re struggling to score effectively and we’re putting way too much pressure on our defense to keep other teams from scoring,” Amey said. “We’re shooting 50% from the line, 29% from the field and we’re averaging 22-plus turnovers. You’re not going to win many games with that, I don’t care what level.”
Jye Roberts had 16 points, but the Red Devils lost their third straight after riding a 28-point fourth quarter to a season-opening 66-55 victory against Lamar County.
The basketball teams have home games Friday against Pike County and Saturday against Peach County before hitting the road for three consecutive games next week.