MCDERMOTT — Dropping postseason bouts are always tough for a program to take.
However, season-ending losses are always easier to absorb when the members of said program accept their roles on the unit — even if they aren’t the most glamorous.
And even though the Clay Panthers’ boys basketball program’s Division III Sectional Semifinal contest against Leesburg-Fairfield — which ended in a 69-43 defeat — or the win-loss record (2-21 overall) — wasn’t what Adam Betten or his unit wanted as far as the overall results were concerned, the sixth-year head coach saw promising attributes that will have his unit, and the four seniors that led it, including Caleb Cline, Teddy McCall, Jacob Wellman, and Brandon Williams, accomplishing major feats down the road.
”I’m proud of my kids,” Betten said. “They continued to play, and all season long, they continued to battle, come into practice, work, and play. They wanted to continue to get better. I’ve been around a lot of teams where guys would start to fold, and they’d walk away. These guys just continued to step up and play every day, and that’s a credit to our seniors. Our senior leadership was fantastic. Caleb’s been around, Teddy’s been around, Jacob’s been around, and Brandon’s been around. Those guys really stepped up, continued to lead, and helped these guys through the growing process.”
And during the first quarter of action, it looked as if Clay was well on its way to a victory that would have it playing for a berth at the Convo behind the shooting of Reece Whitley and Cline’s poise in the frontcourt and backcourt. Whitley’s pair of treys, Cline’s and-one finish through contact, a layup from Whitley, and steady, proficient ballhandling and ball movement allowed the Panthers to take a 13-9 lead with 3:28 to play in the opening quarter of action.
Unfortunately, however, the remaining distance proved to be a struggle.
Over the following 11 minutes, a 23-6 run by Fairfield proved to turn the contest upside down as the Lions turned the contest from a halfcourt affair into a run-and-gun affair. During that time, Cody Gragg, Seth Buddlemeyer, Tucker Ayres, and James Bentley — who all finished in double-figures during the contest with 12, 15, 15, and 13 points, respectively — combined to score 18 of the 23 points during the spurt as Fairfield turned the four-point deficit into a 32-19 halftime lead.
“Our turnovers were low in the first quarter, then in the second quarter, Leesburg-Fairfield picked up the pressure a little bit, and we made some key turnovers that allowed Leesburg-Fairfield to take control,” Betten said. “It led to some easy points for them, and we had to get out of (transition). We can’t give up easy baskets. We needed to slow down, make our offense count, then, on the defensive end, we needed to make them work for everything. At the beginning, we did OK defensively, then we fizzled out toward the end. They just kept going, going, and going.”
In the second half of play, the Panthers tried to set the tempo by slowing the game down into a halfcourt affair once again. But when Ayres drained back-to-back three-pointers from the left wing to start the frame, the Lions ultimately opened up the affair as Leesburg-Fairfield outscored Clay 21-10 in the third quarter of action.
“Coming out in the second half, we needed to make a little run there, and we had some chances, but missed,” Betten said. “They hit a couple of threes that put them up 19, and from then, we were playing catchup. You’ve got to play a fast pace, and that’s not really our style. Hat’s off to Leesburg-Fairfield. They did a great job.”
Still, there were bright spots for the Panthers. Hunter Mathias, who has provided a consistent scoring punch for Clay all year long, scored 11 of his 15 points in the second half of action. The junior, along with Whitley — who scored on a layup attempt in the third quarter to reach double-digits — are both back next year, along with Garrett Beegan, who hit open driving lanes with confidence. Cline also provided solid ballhandling help up top in his final contest with Clay.
“They handled the pressure all night long and were able to take care of the basketball,” Betten said of Beegan, Cline, and Mathias. “I thought that Hunter was able to get to the basket. We put a lot of pressure on those guys to step up and handle the basketball. I’m proud of them for hanging in there.”
With the season at its end, Betten will say farewell to the four seniors that helped this unit a great deal in practice — Cline, McCall, Wellman, and Williams. All four were a part of last year’s 24-3 Clay unit that went to the Division IV, Region 15 Finals.
“They’re great kids,” Betten said of his four seniors. “They continued to fight and play, and I can’t say enough about their leadership. They were in practice every day. Brandon, Jacob, and Teddy encouraged guys in and out of practice and competed in drills. People don’t understand how hard that is to respond in practice, come in every day, and work your tail off just like everybody else when you’re not getting as much playing time. They all did a really good job of that. Caleb was a special part of (the regional final) team last year, and those are memories that he’ll never forget. Hopefully, he’ll be able to take something away from helping these younger guys like he did, and say that he took part in that process. He did a great job.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT