CLAYTON — With the score tied at 55 and the final minute ticking down, Clayton coach Denny Medlin had the ball right where he wanted it in Gary Clarks hands.
Nevermind the 6-foot-8 senior was 18 feet from the basket. Good things just seem to happen when Clark has the ball.
Clark, one-on-one with a Knightdale defender, took it to the basket off the dribble, spinning around his defender and softly banking in a 10-footer to put the Comets ahead 57-55 with 23 seconds left.
Knightdale called timeout and got the ball in one of its scorers hands, but Ronshad Allen-Shabazz who had tied the score at 55 with a 3-pointer with 1 minute, 15 seconds remaining missed a driving shot. Clark was tied up as he picked up a loose-ball rebound under the basket with 1.1 seconds left.
The possession arrow was pointing in the Comets direction, and a long inbounds pass went to Clark, who dribbled the ball once as the horn sounded.
The 57-55 Clayton victory put the Comets (16-3, 9-0) in the drivers seat in the Greater Neuse River 4A. Clayton, No. 3 in The News & Observer rankings, completed a regular-season sweep of No. 5 Knightdale (14-4, 7-2).
Gary made a big, big play at the end, Medlin said. We were having a hard time getting it to him in the post. I had mixed feelings (on Clarks shot). Really in that situation we would want to hold the ball for the last shot and either go into overtime or win it. But Knightdale had so much pressure on us, I felt like we needed to attack.
Obviously, if he made it, it was a great play. If he had missed it, it would have been my fault.
Clark, one of the top players in the state and the nation who has signed a letter-of-intent to attend Cincinnati, came up big in a big game. He scored 29 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and had seven blocked shots.
In the third quarter, he scored 14 points getting fired up when Knightdales Daquan Lilly dunked over him after Lilly had stepped on the baseline and the play was dead.
It was kind of chippy the whole game, Clark said. What really got under my skin was when their guy drove the baseline and he stepped out of bounds. I knew the ref had called it and I was just trying to grab the ball and he dunked it. He was all in my face, so it kind of gets your blood boiling and you just turn it on.
That he did. Right after the play, Clark came down the court and hit a 15-foot jump shot. He added a three-point play and hit another jumper and went 5-for-6 from the foul line during the final two minutes of the quarter as the Comets went ahead 46-38.
Clayton extended its lead to 52-41 with 5:38 left in the game, but Knightdale came charging back to tie the score and set the stage for Clarks big bucket.
It was a good basketball game, Knightdale coach Anthony Byrd said. I thought we missed some opportunities and we missed some free throws down the stretch and Gary (Clark) just hit a big shot at the end.
Hes a tough guy to stop with the height that he has, and he can also put the ball on the floor and shoot it. I thought for the most part we did a pretty good job defensively on him. But he just came up with the big shot at the end and won the game for them.
Byrd was pleased with his teams comeback.
We fought to the end, Byrd said. I told them after the game that I was happy with the way we played the game. We didnt quit. We lost to a very good basketball team and hopefully well see them in the conference tournament.
Lilly led Knightdale with 16 points and Allen-Shabazz had 10.
Clayton got 10 points from Chris Dixon and nine from Dawson Medlin, who made three 3-pointers.
Coach Medlin said that the game was a preview of things to come down the stretch and in the conference tournament and postseason play. And he liked what he saw.
That was a very emotional night, a lot of intensity, the coach said. I am so proud of my guys. As I was walking to my locker room, I told my assistant coach, There is a bunch of winners in there. Weve just got a great group of guys that are not afraid to fail and not afraid of the situation. They just play hard and go get it.
Im just real proud of them. They all played so well.