WELLSTON — Seemingly inch by inch, the Clay Panthers pressed on with a second-half comeback bid.
That’s because the Panthers’ poor first-half performance had put them into a hole that felt like a mile deep.
And, ultimately and unfortunately for Clay on Tuesday evening, those first-half offensive struggles doomed the Panthers in their Division IV sectional semifinal against Eastern — as Clay couldn’t complete its comeback and fell to the Eagles 57-50 at Wellston High School.
The loss ended the Panthers’ season at 7-15, as a non-league contest against visiting Huntington will not be made up.
Eastern, meanwhile, after its initial season of competition in the larger-school Southern Ohio Conference Division II and after back-to-back years of competing as a Division III program, improved to 7-16.
The Eagles, per the new super-sectional format for the Southeast District boys basketball tournaments including in Division IV, were the 16th-seeded squad — while Clay was the 17th-seeded team.
The Panthers scored just 15 seconds into the game on a baseline jump shot by Reece Whitley, but it was their only lead —as in fact, as Newfound Glory once sang, it was all downhill from here.
At least in the first half.
Clay didn’t score for the next five-and-a-half minutes, and only amounted 10 points for the remaining 15 minutes and 45 seconds.
Indeed, it was a frustrating first half for Clay coach Garrick “Tiny” Anderson, who watched his Panthers pile up missed short-range shot after missed short-range shot —mixed in with some of their 11 turnovers.
Clay was just 19-of-49 from the field for 39-percent, but most of those makes were part of the 38-point second half — which included a 23-point fourth period.
Three of the Panthers’ top scorers — Shaden Malone (8-of-19), Whitley (4-of-14) and Gage Moore (1-of-6) —made a combined 13-of-39 for an even 33-percent.
All but seven of those misses occurred in the lane, as the Panthers actually endured two epic scoring droughts of at least five-and-a-half minutes.
“We had a lot of point-blank shots that just simply did not fall for us,” said Anderson. “I don’t know if it was nerves or if we were just not expecting contact. In tournament basketball, they (officials) let you play, and we were just not ready for that. We went up timid and didn’t finish. We just missed point-blank shots and that was big. We lost by seven points, and we could have easily made about five or six shots that we missed. You take that away, and we win. We just didn’t execute our gameplan in the first half.”
The Panthers trailed by as much as 30-15 with 5:15 to play in the third quarter, before finally — at seemingly long last — getting back to within five points at 51-46 but with only 36 seconds remaining.
Trailing 53-47 just seven seconds later, Clay could have had the rebound — assuming it converted on the offensive end — and basket which would have made it a one-possession game.
But as Eastern’s Dillon Mattox missed two free throws in the double-bonus situation, including the second that bounced high and even hit the strap above the backboard, Chase Charter slipped in unimpeded and got an offensive rebound — sticking it back for a dagger of a 55-47 Eagle advantage.
From there, the Panthers’ point-blank misses increased by two, as Eastern’s Hunter Cochenour —the senior standout who paced the Eagles with 16 points —connected on two final free throws with 11 seconds remaining.
The six-foot two-inch junior Malone — the Panthers’ top player, tallest player and leading scorer this season including on Tuesday with a game-high 19 points — made his only three-pointer as the final buzzer sounded.
Anderson praised his Panthers for their second-half hard charge, but even then, there were some hiccups which momentarily slowed the rally.
After both teams traded 15 points apiece in the third quarter and Clay trailed 36-27, Malone scored inside for a 37-31 deficit only a minute into the fourth.
That was as close as Clay had been since trailing 18-12 late in the second stanza, but back-to-back turnovers prevented the Panthers from making it a two-possession affair.
Instead, the Eagles got baskets off those giveaways from Gabe McBee and Mattox in a matter of a minute — for another double-digit lead at 41-31.
“Our guys battled that second half, but it’s been the story of our season,” said Anderson. “We cut the lead down to five or six, then we would have a couple of turnovers and they score on the other end. It’s how our season went this year.”
Eastern’s edge remained between eight and 11 points for the next five minutes and 13 seconds—before Clay Cottle and Moore made back-to-back threes for the 51-46 Clay deficit with just 36 seconds to go.
Malone, who amassed 15 of his 19 markers in the second half, made seven two-point goals in addition to two free throws.
He also grabbed nine of the Panthers’ 26 rebounds, and blocked both of the squad’s two shots.
“The second half we got the ball inside and crashed the offensive glass,” said Anderson.
Evan Woods followed Malone with 11 points, including three three-pointers, as Whitley netted nine points on four field goals and a split of second-quarter foul shots.
Cottle (six points) and Moore (five points) managed all of their points in the final quarter, while Whitley and Malone made the Panthers’ other first-quarter field goals —as Malone with a deuce and Woods with a trey were their other second-period points.
Eastern shot 43-percent on 20-of-47, and took 16 three-point attempts —as it nailed four for the first half including three by Cochenour, as his final two sandwiched a Carter rebound putback as part of eight unanswered over the final 5:32 of the second quarter.
Cochenour also led the Eagles in rebounds (six), assists (three) and steals (two).
McBee and Mattox added a dozen and 10 points respectively, as each drained a three in the third frame.
Carter chipped in eight points on four field goals, while Neil Leist landed six second-half points on two field goals and 2-of-2 free throws.
Eastern will now play Peebles, the top-seeded Division IV club, in next Tuesday’s sectional championship bout at Northwest High School.
The Indians, at 19-2, are riding a 17-game winning streak into next week.
The Panthers, meanwhile, say goodbye to four seniors and prepare for next year, in which the likes of Malone, Woods and Cottle come back for their senior campaigns.
Tuesday’s tilt marked the final for Clay seniors Whitley, Moore, Caden Cline and Dakota Dodds.
“I’ve had those four guys for two years and they’ve been excellent. They’ve done everything that we as a coaching staff have asked them to do. They’ve been great leaders, and Clay High School is really going to miss these guys,” said Anderson. “I just want to thank them for everything they’ve done the last two years.”
* * *
Clay 6 6 15 23 — 50
Eastern 10 11 15 21 — 57
CLAY 50 (7-15)
Clay Cottle 2 1-2 6, Shaden Malone 8 2-5 19, Evan Woods 4 0-0 11, Gavin Cayton 0 0-0 0, Reece Whitley 4 1-2 9, Nate Penn 0 0-0 0, Caden Cline 0 0-0 0, Mitchell King 0 0-0 0, Gage Moore 1 2-2 5, Jaden Jessee 0 0-0 0, Dakota Dodds 0 0-0 0; TOTALS 19 6-11 50; Three-point goals: 6 (Evan Woods 3, Clay Cottle, Shaden Malone and Gage Moore 1 apiece)
EASTERN 57 (7-16)
Drake Ferguson o 0-0 0, Isaac Richardson 0 0-0 0, Dillon Mattox 3 3-6 10, Gabe McBee 5 1-2 12, Hunter Cochenour 4 5-6 16, Neil Leist 2 2-2 6, Brennen Slusher 1 0-0 3, Chase Carter 4 0-0 8, Jake Tribby 1 0-0 2; TOTALS 20 11-20 57; Three-point goals: 6 (Hunter Cochenour 3, Dillon Mattox, Gabe McBee and Brandon Slusher 1 apiece)
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved