ATHENS — Anybody who’s watched Clay this year knows that balance has been the Panthers’ M.O. Three 1,000-point scorers evidence that point in spades.
On Wednesday evening, it just happened to be Cole Gilliland’s turn to head the charge.
The 6-4 senior provided the spark that the Panthers needed by scoring 11 of Clay’s first 15 points and allowing the senior-laden group to pull away from a scrappy Corning Miller squad en route to a 77-50 victory in a Division IV, Athens I District Semifinal at the Convocation Center and obtain its 19th win in a row in the process.
For Adam Betten, it was about opening up the game as the contest played out.
“That was one of the goals for us, to get it out in transition and move,” Betten said. “We knew that (Miller) had some big guys (in Seattle Compston and Cole Geil), so we tried to use the speed and quickness that we bring to the table to our advantage. In the first half, it was pretty sloppy as far as moving the basketball and getting crisp looks were concerned. I thought that in the second half, we did a much better job of taking advantage of mismatches, settling in, and hitting our shots.”
While the play of Compston and Geil kept Miller close, the pair couldn’t contain the effort and athleticism that Gilliland brought to the table throughout the evening.
In fact, the senior forward’s activity on the boards and around the paint helped head Clay as the senior scored eight consecutive points for the Panthers in between the first and second quarters of play to extend the No. 1 seed’s advantage from a 7-6 margin to a 15-8 tally.
“The guys are just extremely unselfish with how they move the basketball,” Betten said. “Tonight, it was Cole’s turn. It was his time to step up. He kept us in the basketball game with his ability to get rebounds and finish strong.”
As the second quarter of play went on, however, the guard rotation of Carson Starlin, Colby Bartley, and Alec Eveland allowed Miller to cut the Clay lead down to a 21-16 tally.
But Gilliland got some much-needed help in the form of Cameron King and Brody Riffe. The pair combined for 10 second-quarter points, with the former hitting three of his four free throws in the quarter and the latter nailing five straight points for the Panthers, to help extend the advantage to a 32-22 margin at the halftime break.
The second half, however, was where Clay really put on a show.
Behind its excellent ball movement and relentless defensive pressure in the backcourt, Gilliland and King were able to combine for 11 points on their own in the frame. Their efforts, combined with a pair of triples from Riffe and Nate Hinze, put the Panthers ahead by an 18-point tally as the third quarter came to a close.
Riffe’s efforts, however, were especially impressive. In addition to adding a dozen points on the night, the senior held the balanced offensive attack of Bartley, Eveland, and Starlin were held to just 10 second-half points. The 6-0 guard added his final four tallies during a quarter-opening 12-4 run in the final frame of action that helped put the contest out of reach.
“Brody stepped up, especially on an out-of-bounds play where he hit a three in the corner,” Betten said. “Defensively, he was able to defend their guards all night and put pressure on (Starlin) all night. Brody was crowding him all night. I’m just proud of his effort on both ends of the floor.”
In addition to the efforts of Gilliland and Riffe, King’s and Hinze’s own statlines left a mark, as well. The former collected 20 points over the entire affair (12 in the second half), while the latter added 11 points on the strength of three made triples that helped stretch the Miller defense. Compston added a team-high 17 points for the Falcons.
For the No. 1-seeded Panthers, a matchup with South Webster awaits Clay in the Division IV, Athens I District Finals. The Panthers defeated the Jeeps, 45-38, in an earlier matchup on Jan. 28 between the pair.
In Betten’s opinion, he sees the game playing out as an up-and-down affair.
“It’s going to be a quick, fast-paced game,” Betten said. “Both teams are good. When you get this far, the competition’s extremely tough. You don’t get to this part by chance. You’ve got to beat a good team or you are a good team. Anything’s possible. We’ve just got to recover over the next couple of days, and after those long layoffs that we’ve had, we only have a two-day layoff now. Games are going to come quick. We’ve just got to refresh, reenergize, get more scouting reports, and come out and show up on Saturday.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7