RALEIGH — With a second consecutive conference title wrapped up, the Clayton boys basketball team is ready to shift its focus to a different kind of championship.
Behind a career night from Gary Clark, the Comets outdueled rival Southeast Raleigh 76-64 on the road Thursday to win the Greater Neuse River 4A conference outright after sharing the title with Garner a year ago. Clayton (20-4, 13-1) will grab a No. 1 seed in the state tournament which began Monday.
“Hopefully we’ve put ourselves in a good situation as far as the bracket. We’ve got to look at this as a brand new season,” Clayton coach Denny Medlin said. “I don’t know that there’s any magic formula other than showing up and going to war every night. We’re going to play good teams in the playoffs and we’ve got to play great and we know that as soon as we don’t, that will be it. We have to approach every game like it could be our last game.”
Clark scored 47 points – 27 of which came from the foul line -- to lead the Comets and spoil Southeast’s Senior Night. The win was the seventh straight over the Bulldogs.
Being on the road against a rival team with the conference title on the line, Thursday’s clash had all the makings of a playoff atmosphere. Neither team led by more than five points until the second half and a 14-point Clayton lead midway through the third quarter all but vanished when Myles Harris pulled the Bulldogs to 54-51 with five minutes to play in the fourth.
But Clark owned the free throw line in the final period, going 12-for-15 with Clayton sitting on the lead. For the game, Clark was 27-for-32 at the stripe and aided his point total with three thundering dunks. Clark scored 16 consecutive points for Clayton during one second-quarter stretch. Although Clark made it look easy, it was anything but against the Bulldogs (13-9, 9-7), who were paced by Harris’ 21 points.
“I was very, very concerned coming in here because Southeast is a tough team. We always say every game is for the championship and this one really was because we needed to win it to win (the conference) outright,” Medlin said.
Last year’s share of the conference title led to a run to the state quarterfinals where the Comets were eliminated by Seventy-First, 84-69. Clayton was bounced in the third round the year before and Medlin hopes this year’s conference success will translate into further triumphs in the coming weeks.
“I think our conference has prepared us well because we have a tough conference,” Medlin said. “We haven’t been the type of team that blows people out. We’ve been the type of team that plays solid and wins possessions and wins quarters. Typically in our conference we’ve steadily won by three or four possessions like we did tonight so I don’t expect any less in the playoffs.”