Nothing ever comes easy this time of year.
But the Clay Panthers know that as well as anybody. That’s why they’re here.
What is here, you ask? The Division IV, Region 15 Semifinals, where a battle with a talented, experienced, and fast-paced Grove City Christian Eagles’ squad awaits as part of Clay’s first trip to the regional tournament since 1969 — well before the division process even existed in the Buckeye State.
Adam Betten, however, knows that his team has a point to prove, which means that backing down won’t even be considered as an option for Clay. Being content with a regional appearance, especially for a group that has won 20 games in a row, won’t be sufficient, either.
“The biggest thing that we tell everybody is that we are excited to be here,” Betten said. “Obviously, we’ve done things here that haven’t been done in a long time. However, you can’t be content. You have to keep going. We believe that we have a very good basketball team that can compete up there. You take it a game at a time and take it as a two-game tournament. We hope to be there for both games. To have a chance to go to the state finals is something that these kids have dreamed about since they were really little. I believe they have a good chance. However, we have to compete, play hard, move the basketball like we normally do, and sit down and defend.”
Throughout the season, Clay has mixed and matched their run-and-gun outbursts with the ability to adapt to the overall pace of the contest. That fact has been proven throughout the last month-and-a-half, as the Panthers have scored 70 points or more in nine of its last dozen affairs while winning by at least 21 points or more in each of those contests. In the three contests that Clay didn’t break 70, the Panthers found a way to adapt while pushing their way through adverse circumstances in their remaining trio of bouts during that timespan, as Clay defeated Eastern by a 45-30 count on Jan. 20 and South Webster by scores of 45-38 on Jan. 28 and 54-48 in Thursday’s Division IV, Athens I District Final to make their own statement.
That ability to adapt will be paramount against a Grove City Christian team that has proven that it likes to run. The Eagles average 81.3 points per contest, and have eclipsed their season average in 11 different games over the course of the year behind the efforts of Matt Bailey and Brandon Baker, who have combined to average 36.7 points per game on their own. In four different affairs, Grove City Christian has hit or surpassed the 100-point plateau.
“We have been able to adapt, and that’s always going to be key,” Betten said. “Against Grove City Christian, the pace might be a little bit fast. They like to get out and run, and they’ve scored a lot of points in transition. Make or miss, they like the outlet ball and they like to get down the floor, so we’re going to have to get back on defense. We can’t give up a lot of easy baskets to them. We have to sit down and guard them, make it hard for them to get in the paint, and make them kick it out. We’re going to have to be up for the challenge, and we’re going to have to play well. We’re going to have to move to the basketball, we’re going to have to shoot the basketball well, and go from there.”
In addition to Bailey, the Division IV All-Central District Player of the Year, and Baker, there are six additional seniors on the Eagles’ roster, including All-Central District Special Mention Clayton Shoemaker. Noah Tomlinson, a 6-5 junior, is another player that is a threat on both ends of the floor for Grove City Christian.
However, with seven seniors on the roster, Clay sports a vast amount of experience in its own right. King and Gilliland, who were Division IV All-Southeast District First and Second Team honorees, have averaged over 15 points per contest during the postseason. Nate Hinze, a Third-Team All-Southeast District member, has consistently averaged right around his season mark of 14.1 points per affair in the Panthers’ postseason victories over Manchester, Miller, and South Webster. Then, there’s Caleb Cline, Brody Riffe, and Anthony Williams, who have been crucial to the unit and have helped to take the pressure off of the leading trio in multiple areas. Riffe came up with 11 massive tallies against the Falcons, while Williams scored a team-high 13 against the Jeeps, including a game-tying bucket that helped kickstart a game-deciding 10-3 run.
“Grove City Christian is very similar to us,” Betten said. “I believe that we match up well with them. We just have to play our game. We’ve been doing it all year long, and we just have to sit down and play in order to keep doing that.”
In all, going all out will be the motto for Betten’s unit — regardless of the circumstances that present themselves on Tuesday evening in Athens.
“We’re very happy with the way that things are going and have gone, especially when you consider the 20 wins in a row and the Division IV District Championship,” Betten said. “However, there’s more out there for the taking, and these guys want to keep playing. They don’t want this ride to end. We want to prepare like we’re going to the state finals.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7