Remaining focused and poised in critical moments are key in any postseason runs that a team makes.
On Friday evening, the Clay Panthers used that very poise and focus to battle back from a 17-2 first-quarter deficit and make Columbus Wellington sweat out a Division IV, Region 15 Regional Final affair by cutting the aforementioned margin down to a 30-28 tally by the opening possession of the second half of play.
However, despite 15 points, five rebounds, and five assists from Cameron King, along with a 12-rebound, nine-point effort from Cole Gilliland, Clay just wasn’t quite able to get over the hump in a 70-56 loss to Columbus Wellington at the Convo, marking the end of a historic tournament run for the Panthers.
And it’s the efforts in that run that have not only galvanized a community, but will have the fans of the Clay basketball program talking about the 2016-2017 Panthers’ basketball unit for a long time to come.
“You can’t be upset with these kids,” Betten said. “They did a fantastic job, represented our area extremely well, and I’m extremely proud of them. They just compete, they want to be in the gym all of the time, and they want to do the little things in order to be successful. It’s just been a joy to coach them. Everybody wants to end their season with a win, but the boys have nothing to hang their heads about. They created a lot of memories for our school and our community, and did a lot of things for our school and our community that haven’t been done in a long time. People are going to remember what a joy it was to watch them play.”
At first, the going was tough for Clay, to say the least.
Behind its relentless pressure and its excellent ball movement, Columbus Wellington jumped out to an 11-0 advantage behind a pair of treys from Dallas Patrick and Guy Schmidt. King was able to obtain the Panthers’ first bucket on a nifty finish in the lane with 4:19 to play in the first quarter of action, but the Jaguars followed by pushing its lead out to a 17-2 edge as Wellington was able to obtain six consecutive points from the trio of Solomon Pierre-Louis, Bob Faller, and John Faller.
The Panthers of Clay, however, never dropped their heads.
“The guys just continued to fight and claw,” Betten said. “I got a lot of people saying, ‘Why didn’t you call a timeout!’ These guys have been in that situation before. I didn’t have to call a timeout. Nobody on our bench was panicking. We knew that the senior leaders that we have on our roster were going to step up and play.”
And over the remaining nine minutes of the half, the seniors led Clay on a thrilling ride that got the Panthers right back into the thick of the contest.
After King and Brody Riffe connected on three of their four free throw attempts to draw Clay within 17-5 at the end of the opening quarter of play, the former proceeded to put on a thrilling three-point display in the second quarter of play by connecting on three consecutive treys. The senior guard’s makes — which came from dead-on, the left side, and the right side — in addition to a Gilliland three-ball that started the second quarter scoring, allowed Clay to go on a blistering 15-2 run that helped cut the gap to a 19-17 advantage.
The senior guard’s makes — which came from dead-on, the left side, and the right side — in addition to a Gilliland three-ball that started the second quarter scoring, allowed Clay to go on a blistering 15-2 run that helped cut the gap to a 19-17 advantage.
Then, after another 6-0 run by Wellington over the following 1:30, the 6-4 post, along with Riffe and Nate Hinze, kept Clay right in the thick of the battle. Riffe’s basket from straightaway, followed by Hinze’s trey off of an inbound pass from the baseline, and Gilliland’s bomb to cap off the half put the Panthers within a 30-26 margin at the break.
“These guys bounced back and did a fantastic job,” Betten said. “We knew that with the extra pass, we’d get some good shots off of our ability to penetrate. The extra pass created some time to get some shots, and extra time to get our shots off because Columbus Wellington is so athletic. I thought that the guys did a good job of executing the gameplan.”
In the second half of play, Clay continued its strong play as Gilliland connected on a low-post putback to score a half-opening bucket and Hinze added his own stamp on the quarter with a trey to keep the Panthers right in the affair.
However, despite the continued efforts of the quartet, as well as six consecutive tallies by Anthony Williams, an 8-2 spurt by Columbus Wellington, behind the Jaguars’ second-chance opportunities, allowed the Jaguars to open the lead up to a 51-43 tally by the end of the third quarter.
“We gave up too many offensive rebounds, which is something that we couldn’t do, and some of Columbus Wellington’s guys hit some big shots in key moments,” Betten said. “We played really well and really hard; it just speaks volumes about how good their basketball team is.”
In the fourth quarter, Williams continued to show the very qualities that got Clay to the regional final.
With 6:47 remaining in the contest, the senior took advantage of a lazy pass by Columbus Wellington, dove for the basketball to take possession away, and after diving for the basketball as it rolled away from him to retain possession, alertly called timeout before any Jaguars could jump on top of him to force a held ball.
“The guys played extremely well,” Betten said. “There was no quit in them. That’s just the kind of competitors that they are.”
But despite 10 second-half points from Williams and another crafty bucket from King that helped cut the deficit back down to an eight-point margin with a little over four minutes to play, the efforts of Pierre-Louis, Dustin Harder, and Noah Berry proved to be too much for Clay to handle. The trio, who combined for 29 rebounds on the evening, scored 14 straight points in the fourth quarter, including 10 of Columbus Wellington’s 11 points during an 11-5 run, that put the contest out of reach.
With the loss, Clay’s 21-game winning streak, and a historic postseason run that culminated in the Panthers’ best campaign in nearly two full generations, came to a close on Friday evening.
However, the memories that have been established from this year’s 24-win unit — including the school’s second SOC II Championship in three seasons, along with a sectional title, a district title, and a regional runner-up finish — will not be forgotten anytime soon, thanks to the efforts of the seniors in Gilliland, Hinze, King, Riffe, Williams, Drew Hadsell and Taylor Pack.
“Every one of our seniors are tremendous young men, and they play so hard,” Betten said. “This run didn’t come by chance. They had to put their time in the gym, and we’re extremely proud of them. This senior class left a lot of great memories for us to be able to enjoy for a long time. It was a fun ride. People all across the area come up to me and comment all the time about how fun it’s been to watch these guys play the game of basketball. They’re extremely unselfish, and it just speaks volumes about the kind of men that they are.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930