Two SOC I schools were seeking their first win of the season on Tuesday night at Notre Dame High School.
The Titans (0-3) wound up falling just short to the Clay Panthers (1-5) in a thrilling 60-54 affair.
Clay would fend off a furious Notre Dame comeback late to record their first victory of the 2017 campaign.
“It’s always a close game when we come here,” Panthers head coach Adam Betten said. “Last year it was a one point game, and the year before that it was a one point game.”
Led by a 20-point night from junior Hunter Mathias in his season debut, Clay had just enough to keep the Titans at bay late.
Mathias played in his first game of the season after a nagging ankle injury sidelined him for the first five games of the year.
“It was a huge bounce back for Hunter Mathias to be with us tonight,” Betten said. “Coming back off injury, he just brought a lot of energy to us.”
“His motor never stops. It’s hard to believe he just got cleared Monday and he was able to play at that high of a level right off the bat.”
Getting to the victory was no easy task for the Panthers.
Clay fell behind 9-2 early in the game as Notre Dame employed a brutal half-court trap that gave the Panthers some problems at the start.
The Titans would switch defenses throughout the night, resulting in 16 turnovers on behalf of Clay.
To start, it seemed like the Panthers would have their hands full. But towards the end of the first, Clay relied on a 9-0 run to take a 15-13 lead into the second frame of action.
The streak was sparked by senior Caleb Cline, who put up six points in the first.
“Caleb is our senior leader,” Betten said. “He stepped up, did a lot of good things tonight, and helped keep the guys calm when we needed to be.”
Cline had 15 points in the game.
In the second quarter, baskets were hard to come by for both schools.
Each team had combined for only six points until the 2:50 mark, when sophomore Gage Moore hit a big three in the corner out of a Panthers timeout.
“Gage Moore was able to step up and do a lot of good things for us,” Betten said. “He started the game, and handled the ball extremely well and did everything we asked him to do.”
“Huge three in the corner when we set up an inbounds play, and he was able to knock it down.”
Like they had done all game though, Notre Dame continued their resiliency to battle back.
Trailing 20-17, the Titans trucked ahead to a 5-0 run to go up by two.
Just before the half, Mathias scored for Clay to the game at 22 all at the break.
Both offenses would come to life in the second half, however.
The Panthers began to pour it on out of the gates, coasting ahead with a 7-0 run to open the third quarter.
Mason Newton got things going with a wonderful drive and finish at the rim, drawing a foul. Newton would miss the free throw, but his effort on the court impressed his head coach.
“Mason Newton defended his tail off tonight,” Betten said. “He had to be on [Ben] Mader all night, and Mader is a great shooter.”
Newton would score nine points himself, and played a big part in holding Mader to just 13 points.
As they had done all game, Notre Dame would not go away.
Back-to-back threes from Jackson Clark and Ben Mader made it a one point game again. Clark and Mader both totaled 13 points each in the game.
Those three-pointers were set up on nice feeds from big freshman Miles Shipp, who passed to his shooters from his position in the post.
Shipp scored 12 for the Titans.
Both teams would trade scores back and forth, and Clay used a 7-0 run at the end of the third to take a 40-32 lead into the last period.
The Panthers looked primed to get the victory as the fourth quarter got underway, and took a 52-42 on a beautiful assist from Mathias to Cline.
Still, Notre Dame had a scoring surge in their back pockets.
Mader drained a three-pointer in response, and Betten took a timeout with 3:17 left in the contest.
Back on the court, Clay didn’t score and the Titans answered back with another three-pointer from Clark.
“I just told them to keep fighting and keep going at it, don’t stop until the clock says zero,” Notre Dame head coach Garrick Anderson said.
Answering that bucket was Reece Whitley, who scored two points at the free throw line to push the Panthers lead to 54-48 at 2:43 in the fourth.
“Reece Whitley stepping up and hitting all those free throws, just huge for a sophomore to be able to do that,” Betten said. “We’ve had a couple games this year where we couldn’t knock them down.”
Clay finished 18 of 23 at the free throw line, by far their best output of the young season.
Notre Dame wasn’t done yet, though.
Freshman Caleb Nichols hit a free throw with 2:15 left to put the Titans within five. On the next possession, senior Tyler Speas hit a corner three to pull Notre Dame within two 54-52.
Speas finished in double figures as well with 11 points.
Following the trey from Speas, Clay took a timeout with 1:45 to play.
“I was proud of our effort,” Anderson said. “After being down the last two games we could’ve easily gave up, but we fought back, and I think that’s a sign of us maturing.”
Back on the floor, the Titans were close but couldn’t come up with another score to tie the game or take the lead.
Mathias hit five free throws in the last minute and a half, and Cline also hit one of his own to capture a 60-54 win.
The first victory of the season for the Panthers could signify the start of something special in Rosemount.
“It’s something these guys wanted to build on,” Betten said. “Last year in the conference we started 0-2, and we bounced back and won the next 10.”
Notre Dame was able to get some big contributions from their young core of players, and their lone senior Speas.
“Jackson Clark and Miles Shipp both came up big for us, and I thought Tyler Speas had a big game,” Anderson said.
Both teams will meet again at Clay on Jan. 19. Coach Anderson hopes his team will make a turnaround by that date.
“We’ve just got to be smarter,” Anderson said. “We can’t go down 8-0 in our runs, we just have to be smarter and take care of the basketball.”
The Panthers and their head coach know the Titans will be ready to play, even if they didn’t get the win on Tuesday.
“Notre Dame is a good basketball team,” Betten said. “They continued to fight all the way to the end, but I thought our guys did a good job being able to step up and execute.”
Reach Benjamin Spicer at (502)264-7318 on Twitter @BSpicerPDT or at Facebook.com/ReporterBenSpicer