Clinton hosted West Bladen on Thursday night in the second round of the NCHSAA 2A basketball playoffs. The two Four County Conference foes squared off for the third time this season in what promised to be an exciting matchup, and it did not disappoint. The Dark Horses took an early lead, only to have the Knights storm back, turning the game into a nail-biter in the final quarter with Clinton ultimately taking the win 50-45.
After a lackluster defensive performance in Tuesday’s first round contest, the Dark Horses came out with a renewed defensive intensity against the Knights. Both teams struggled to score in the opening minutes holding each other scoreless for nearly two minutes before Kris Williams stole the ball at midcourt and took the ball in for a layup at the 6:19 mark. Clinton’s defense continued to play well, holding the Knights to only one field goal in the opening frame — a 3-pointer — and one free throw. By the end of the first quarter, Clinton held a 14-10 advantage and looked set to run away with the game.
West Bladen had other plans as they opened the second quarter with a 5-0 run to cut the Clinton lead to five, at 14-9, before a Jalen Bell put back basket stemmed the tide. The teams settled into a grinding style play, much different from the style the Dark Horses prefer to play, as they punched and counter-punched through the first half. The Knights faced a seven-point deficit, at 22-15, heading to the halftime break, in a game whose pace certainly favored West Bladen.
Clinton was able to hold the Knights at bay for most of the third quarter, maintaining the lead at seven points until late in the period. With just under a minute to play, West Bladen hit a 3-pointer to cut the lead to four points and when the Dark Horses failed to answer at the other end the Knights had a chance to cut the lead again. With 17 seconds remaining in the quarter Clinton was whistled for a foul on the baseline and a brief shoving match ensued. After the dust cleared West Bladen was awarded two free throws for a technical foul on the Horses, which John Bowen calmly sank to cut the lead to two. The Knights were unable to convert on the final play of the quarter, missing a 3-point attempt and leaving the Dark Horses with a slim 2 point lead at 31-29.
West Bladen’s shooters cooled off early in the fourth quarter but the Knights continued to play great defense, keeping the Dark Horses close. Jeremiah Pope hit a step back 3-pointer at just under five minutes remaining, giving the Dark Horses a little breathing room at 38-29.
Down the stretch Clinton got strong board play from Prentice Murphy, Bell and Dewan Lesane. The trio raked in several offensive rebounds with all three sinking crucial second chance baskets to keep the Dark Horses in command.
Lesane’s putback at the 1:02 mark gave the Horses a nine-point lead, but West Bladen refused to give in, using two more long rang bombs from John Bowen to cut the Clinton lead to four points twice in the final minutes. In the end this was as close as the Knights could come, and a Tyion Wright free throw with five seconds remaining sealed the win for Clinton at 50-45.
The Dark Horses were led by Williams who slashed his way to a 16-point performance. Jeremiah Pope added 11 and Lesane scored 10 points. Wright had six points, Bell got four on two opportunistic putbacks and Murphy added three points off the bench. West Bladen’s Bowen led all scorers with 20 and Sayaun Dent added 14 for the Knights.
After the game, Clinton head coach Randy Jordan said he was pleased with his team’s execution down the stretch.
“The fourth quarter, we executed,” he said. “We never got the tempo where we wanted and that is a credit to West Bladen. But I give a lot of credit to our guys — they were patient, they were unselfish and looked for the extra pass all night. Tymair McIntyre had some big rebounds and Prentice Murphy was huge down the stretch for us.”
Jordan said the games don’t get any easier from here.
“I will say it again — we survived and advanced,” the coach attested. “There are no easy games from here on. Everyone is good, we gutted one out tonight. Now we have to get ready for a big game on Saturday in the next round.”
Clinton’s Pope talked after the game about finding other ways to help his team on a night when his shot was not falling.
“I couldn’t find my shot early on tonight,” Pope said. “I looked for other ways to help out tonight, really looked to get my teammates the ball where they could score. West Bladen was tough and they took us out of what we wanted to do.”
Wright echoed Pope’s sentiment about the West Bladen game plan, adding “we didn’t think anyone could take us out of the tempo we like to play, but credit to West Bladen, they really slowed us down. We just stayed patient and found ways to score and get the job done, especially in the fourth quarter when it mattered most.”
McIntyre was also perplexed by the stingy West Bladen defense, stating “I came in and couldn’t get my shot to fall and was having trouble getting to the basket so I just decided to get on the boards and get some rebounds and help the team that way.”
The win improves Clinton’s record to 26-2 and advances the Dark Horse to the third round where they will host Ayden-Grifton at Sampson Middle School on Saturday evening. Ayden-Grifton, the No. 22 seed, earned the third round berth by virtue of their win over 9th-seed Northeastern on Thursday night. The Chargers hold a 16-12 record coming out of a very tough conference.
“Ayden Grifton is a very good team,” Jordan said of the Chargers. “They play in a very competitive league. Don’t be fooled by their record, they will really test us and we will have to execute very well to have a chance, but we will be ready.”
Game time for Saturday’s third round game is set for 7:30 p.m.
Reach Daron Barefoot at [email protected]