GARNER — Evidently, the path to a conference basketball championship can’t be easy when rivals Clayton and Garner are involved. It wasn’t Monday night either.
Garner topped Clayton 76-73 in boys’ basketball to prevent the Comets from clinching the Greater Neuse River 4A regular-season title outright.
Clayton now needs to win its last two to be assured of winning the league title outright. The Comets shared the regular-season crown with Garner last season and the two have finished 1-2 in the league for the past four seasons.
Two factors determined Monday night’s outcome: Garner’s scrappiness down the stretch and the Comets’ struggles at the free throw line.
“We’ve come a long way since we went to Knightdale,” said Garner coach Eddie Gray, flashing back to the Trojans’ last loss – a 31-point setback against the Knights on Jan. 7. “These kids have hung together and just kept working, getting better. It was a blue-collar kind of night for us.”
Garner (14-7, 10-2), winners of nine straight, trailed by nine early in the fourth quarter but started finding open shooters and paths to the basket in the final six minutes. Clayton (18-4, 11-1), meanwhile, had plenty of chances to pull away but never could. The Comets were 15-of-37 at the line on the night.
Garner pulled even at 66 with 2:37 to play on a short jumper by sophomore Jashaun Smith, which followed a Comets possession when senior standout Gary Clark, a Cincinnati signee, picked up his fourth foul on a drive to the basket.
Clark had to pick and choose his shot-blocking attempts the rest of the way, giving Smith and the Trojans a little easier access to the goal.
Smith scored 13 of his team-high 19 points in the final quarter.
Garner’s move to a full-court press surprised Clayton as well.
“We started pressing to speed them up and we got a few easy baskets off of turnovers,” said Garner’s Julius Barnes, who finished with 17 points.
Darius Simmons contributed 13 for the Trojans and Alex Reed had 12.
Chris Dixon and Smith traded baskets on the next two possessions before Garner’s Kyrece Mills scored on a driving layup after the Trojans spread the floor for a 70-68 lead.
Garner wouldn’t trail again, taking advantage of some great ball movement and hustle by Nick Kuhns, Justin Baird and Smith to get out of a Clayton trap attempt and give Smith an open look to put Garner up 72-69.
Kuhns added two free throws with 12.6 seconds to play to put Garner up by four but Clayton got back within 76-73 with 6.2 seconds left. The Comets got Clark a look at a 3-pointer at the buzzer but the shot clanged off of the back of the iron.
Clark finished with 33 points, 21 rebounds and five blocked shots.
“You look at the free throws and that’s your ball game right there,” said Clayton coach Denny Medlin. “We’re usually a decent shooting free throw team. We weren’t tonight for some reason.
“Garner played well and just hung around and made plays at the end.”
Clayton was on a 22-game win streak against league opponents and Garner hasn’t lost to a conference opponent other than Clayton since Jan. 10, 2012 (Southeast Raleigh, who the Trojans are scheduled to play Tuesday).
Best: 919-524-8895; Twitter: @dclaybest