The hugs, cheers, laughs and tears could be seen and heard for a full 20 minutes after the conclusion of a thrilling Division IV, Region 15 Semifinal matchup on Tuesday evening between the Clay Panthers and the Grove City Christian Eagles.
But who could blame them? Because as the famous saying goes, the Panthers of Clay are going back to the Convo.
Down 12 points with less than a minute to play in the third frame, and down 10 (60-50) at the end of the third quarter, it looked as if Clay was teetering on life support.
The Panthers had held the lead for a grand total of six seconds through three quarters of play. Free throws and turnovers kept victimizing Clay at the wrong times. And it seemed like Grove City Christian had an answer for every single run that Adam Betten’s club kept putting together.
However, as they have all season long, Betten’s Panthers just found a way.
Cameron King and Brody Riffe combined to score 40 of their 47 points in the second half of play, Cole Gilliland put up a monstrous stat line of 23 points, 14 rebounds, five assists, four blocks, and four steals, and Caleb Cline, Nate Hinze, and Anthony Williams all connected on critical buckets throughout the second half and overtime periods to will Clay to an astonishing 100-97 double-overtime victory over a stout Grove City Christian unit.
So how did Betten’s players pull off such an incredible victory — in a stage that none of the Clay players had seen until this year, no less?
By scratching, clawing and fighting — like Panthers do.
“The guys dug way down, and they dug deep,” Betten said of the thrilling victory. “They play with everything they’ve got. They don’t want to stop this run, they want to keep playing, and they’re extremely fun to watch when they do that. They just continue to do what is necessary in order to come out on top.”
With King’s patented jumper from the left side of the lane, Clay took an early 2-1 advantage within the first minute of the contest thanks to the heady work of the senior on the drive.
And even though Grove City Christian quickly responded with a 5-0 run to take a 6-2 lead, the Panthers stood their ground, as Williams’ low-post basket, a pair of Hinze baskets on runouts, and a Riffe trey with 8.7 seconds to play in the quarter allowed the Panthers to tie the score.
However, the Division IV All-Central District Player of the Year, Matt Bailey, came back with his own special flavor. The senior, who scored 19 points on the night, nailed a trey to put the Eagles back in front by a 17-14 tally after a quarter of play.
In the second quarter of action, the play of Bailey, Brandon Baker (who led GCC with a game-high 22), and Noah Tomlinson allowed Grove City Christian to grab a 5-0 run and take a 23-17 advantage. Hinze and Gilliland, however, closed the gap behind the former’s bucket and the latter’s and-one finish down low. Cameron King capped off the 6-0 spurt by making the front end of two free throws to tie the score at 23 apiece.
Then, adversity hit.
Through the remainder of the first half, Clay fell behind as Grove City Christian, behind another outburst by Baker, managed to give the Eagles a 35-25 lead by scoring seven points during a 12-2 spurt.
The Panthers answered that run with a 6-0 spurt of its own behind five tallies from Gilliland’s efforts to cut the lead down to a four-point margin, 35-31, but Grove City Christian answered once more as an 8-0 spurt was capped by a Brandon Balnoschan trey that beat the first-half buzzer, which put the Eagles up by a 42-31 tally.
As the third quarter of play heated up, both teams continued their scoring exploits, as the lead bounced back-and-forth between nine to 13 points throughout.
With the lead at 53-40, Clay attempted to make a significant push on the back of Riffe, who scored seven critical points in a row for the Panthers to keep Clay close. His seven straight points during a two-and-a-half minute stretch allowed the Panthers to cut the gap to a 53-45 tally with around three minutes to play in the third quarter.
But a missed layup and a turnover in consecutive possessions proved costly, and by the end of the third quarter, Grove City Christian had extended the lead back out to 10.
However, if one was reading Clay’s body language on the floor, it didn’t come across as a team that was down by a double-digit margin in the final quarter of play.
“They’re a family,” Betten said. “They’re my family. We treat it like a family, and they have continued to believe in the system and in what we do. I’m just proud of the way that they kept continuing to fight and play. They’re extremely encouraging with each other. They have tried to encourage and pump each other up throughout the course of all of our contests this season, and that’s a big reason why we’re where we are.”
And behind the voices and efforts of King and Riffe, the Panthers proved that with a furious comeback to match all comebacks.
Despite the 10-point deficit entering the fourth quarter, the pair didn’t back down, as they combined to score seven points in a matter of 50 seconds at the start of the frame to cut the deficit to a single possession once again. The star duo then added eight additional points over the next 1:53 as the margin was cut to a 66-65 gap with only 5:17 left to play.
“They’re just gamers, man,” Betten said of the pair. “They just step up and play. We’re in the huddle, and they’re saying, ‘Let’s go! We don’t want to be done with this!’ I’m just proud of the way that they played.”
Then, Gilliland and Hinze stepped up once more. Hinze’s trey from the left corner gave Clay its first lead of the second half at the 4:14 mark of the fourth quarter, and Gilliland nailed the back end of a pair of free throws to give the Panthers a two-point advantage with under four minutes to go.
From Hinze’s trey to the end of the fourth, the ballclubs tied or traded the lead six different times in the 4:19 span, with both teams breaking ahead at different points in the contest.
With Grove City Christian up by a 75-73 tally and just seconds remaining, King turned it on again. The senior used his quickness to escape the Eagles’ pressure and add a running layup that connected off of the glass with less than five seconds remaining that sent the thrilling contest to a well-deserved extra session.
“Wooh. Wooh!” Betten said, trying to absorb what he saw. “They all just compete and play. When it came down to game time, they stepped up and knocked shots down. To be able to coach guys like that is a dream. For them to step up and shoot like that when we needed to is just fantastic. Every time we had an answer, Grove City had an answer. To just keep playing with that focus and intensity in a pressure-packed atmosphere speaks volumes about the types of competitors that these guys are.”
But it didn’t slow down. In fact, it only intensified.
But despite facing deficits of 78-76, 80-79, and 84-82, Clay never backed off the gas.
This was evident in both overtimes, but especially in the first, when the Panthers faced an 84-82 deficit with less than 50 seconds left in the initial extra session.
Bailey, who had been sharp all night from the free throw line for Grove City Christian, was fouled and had two free throws with 48.1 remaining. He missed them both. The Eagles’ Stevie Whinham then obtained the rebound for Grove City Christian and was fouled with 40.4 seconds left in the first overtime. But like it was fate, Whinham missed both free throws, as well.
Caleb Cline, who played 13 total minutes in the contest — with seven of those 13 minutes coming after Williams fouled out in the first overtime — showed his excellent IQ by performing a textbook box out. In the Eagles’ haste to reattain possession, the junior was fouled, and with both teams facing double-bonus situations, obtained the chance to hit a pair of free throws.
In one fellow swoop, Clay had gone from facing a two-possession deficit to the possibility of tying the contest up once more behind the efforts of the junior. Cline, who hadn’t scored a point all game leading up to the two biggest free throws of his life, calmly sank both to force double overtime.
“I’m extremely proud of Caleb,” Betten said. “He continued to play and fight, and all of that after sitting out the majority of the third quarter and some of the fourth frame because Anthony (Williams) was playing so well. For him to bounce right in there and respond was fantastic.”
The theatrics, however, weren’t over yet.
At the beginning of the second overtime, Hinze caught fire. The senior nailed a low-post basket, then drilled yet another trey, this time from the right side of the floor, to help put Clay up by a 91-86 tally.
But like Clay’s fourth quarter spurt, Grove City Christian came back with a flurry in the second overtime as an and-one finish by Hunter Oda and treys on consecutive trips by Balnoschan and Whinham in less than a minute and a half put the Eagles up by a 95-94 tally.
However, Clay was able to close the deal — once and for all.
On the ensuing trip following Whinham’s trey, Cline came right back with the biggest basket of the game as the junior obtained excellent inside position en route to finishing the go-ahead basket with 42.4 seconds left. A Grove City turnover and two missed low-post buckets from Bailey and Whinham allowed the Panthers to seal the deal with four free throws — two each from Gilliland and King — en route to the win.
The ending stat lines tell most of the story. King and Riffe hit exactly 50 percent (16-of-32) of their shot attempts while playing all 40 minutes in the affair. Gilliland connected on 54 percent of his shot attempts while leading the Panthers to the win by pacing the club in assists, blocks, and rebounds. He, too, played all 40 minutes. Nate Hinze played all but one minute during the affair and connected a crucial nine rebounds and six assists while doing so. Then, there was Cline and Williams — who each came up big at different points during the affair — in their 36 combined minutes of action — .
“Just gutsy, gutsy, gutsy,” Betten said of his core group of six. “They left everything out there. There was nothing left. I’m just extremely pleased with all of them.”
With the victory, Clay will play Columbus Wellington on Friday evening in the Division IV, Region 15 Championship affair for the right to play in the OHSAA Division IV Final Four — a right that Betten is certainly optimistic about.
“We can advance,” Betten said. “We feel like we can play with anybody, and we like our chances. We’ve just got to take it one basketball game at a time, and we’ve got to execute. We’ve got to do a better job of hitting free throws, and we’ve got to block out. We’re going to have to box out, we’re going to have to compete, and we’re going to have to play hard. We’ve got a trip to the state finals on the line, which is something that these guys have dreamed about. You’ve got a trip to the state finals on the line, but even with that in mind, we have to continue to take it one possession at a time.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930