GARNER — When tournament week – and in this case, championship week – for the Greater Neuse River 4A Conference boys basketball regular-season co-champions Clayton and Garner started, the task ahead for Clayton was a challenging one.
It was also one the first chance for the Comets to try a new approach to the postseason.
“We decided after the regular-season that we needed a new approach, to look at the post season differently,” said Clayton coach Denny Medlin. “We knew the games we could have to play this week. We’ve been to the second and third round of the playoffs and lost. If we want to change that, we have to look at it differently.”
After losing the coin flip for the No. 1 tournament seed, with it home court advantage in a potential finals matchup, the Comets faced a daunting gauntlet just to get to that point.
First waiting was rival Smithfield-Selma, a team no one wanted to play in the league, despite the Spartans’ 4-10 league mark. SSS’s margin of loss in those 10 games averaged just 8.7 points.
But Clayton easily dispatched their rivals with a 69-44 romp.
“We just have to grab every opportunity we have,” said junior Gary Clark. “We’ve got everybody thinking the same way: all in on everything.”
Next up in the semfinals awaited a physical and talented Southeast Raleigh team that had given Clayton and Garner fits during the regular season. The Bulldogs did just that again, but a late Comet push led to a 65-57 win.
That set up the anticipated showdown with Garner for the league’s No.1 playoff seeding and a potential top regional seeding as well.
Clayton claimed both of those things, feeding its two scoring stars – senior guard Anthony Gaskins and junior forward Gary Clark - throughout the second half and rallied for a 71-59 victory over Garner to take the Greater Neuse River 4A Conference boys basketball tournament championship.
The Comets (25-2) will be at home throughout the sectional playoffs this week.
Down 39-33 with 4:46 in the third quarter, the Comets put together a 9-0 run, then traded the lead with the Trojans twice before pulling ahead for good on a Clark follow up shot late in the third.
“We started the third quarter not getting shots on multiple trips,” Medlin said. “We started moving the ball better, and staying with our offense. Anthony hit some big shots and Gary was just dominant. Tre (Armstead), our freshman, he didn’t stop Julius (Barnes) but he made him work for everything.”
Garner (21-4) cut the lead to a single point twice midway of the fourth quarter but fell victim to a closing 14-3 run scoring spurt.
Clark finished with 36 points, 19 rebounds and seven blocked shots. He had 13 points in the fourth quarter alone.
“We came out and got some needed stops,” Clark said of Clayton’s second-half play. “We didn’t let the situation get to us. We knew if we got one or two stops, we would get back in it.”
Gaskins hit five 3-pointers on the way to his 26-point outing.
Garner took an early lead behind its outside shooting from Demarcus Sanford (19 points) and the inside work of Foster Dunbar (20 points), but those outside looks went away in the second half and Dunbar fouled out.
“The guys battled in there,” said Garner coach Eddie Gray, whose team had won the previous three GNRC tournament titles. “We knew we had to hit the outside shot, like we did in the fist meeting, and we didn’t hit enough of them.”
Clayton had won the last meeting in Clayton after falling in the first meeting. Garner had home court advantage in the rematch after winning the coin flip for the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.
“These have been three great games with Garner,” Medlin said. “They’re so hard to guard and they keep coming and coming. You just never feel safe against them with any kind of lead.”
The Trojans still want that much-sought after regional berth as well and believe they can still achieve it.
“We’ve got great seniors and leaders and we’re still a good team,” Gray said. “You’d hope we’d get a game or two at home and have a chance to get back where we want to be.”
Although both teams are in the same regional, they are on opposite sides of the bracket meaning that any potential fourth meeting of the season wouldn’t come until the regional round in Fayetteville next week. That’s a result both teams would certainly welcome.