Times Sports Editor
SWITZ CITY -- For three quarters, Clay City coach Grant McVay saw the team he'd been looking for all season going toe-to-toe with Shakamak in the White River Valley Sectional.
But it was the opening quarter that dug the Eels a hole they couldn't quite dig out of in falling 56-52 to the Lakers who improve to 17-5 and will advance to face the host Wolverines on Friday night.
The Eels outscored Class A's 12th-ranked Lakers over the final three quarters, but allowed Shakamak to gain a seven-point lead through the first quarter.
McVay felt that Shakamak was able to get too many easy looks inside during the early going.
"You can't allow a team to go 8-of-10 from inside 10-feet during the first half," said McVay. "We wanted to make them fight and scratch for everything inside, but in the first half we let them go 8-of-10."
Jordan Defore kept the Eels within striking distance early in the battle, hitting all four of his 3-pointers in the first half on the way to a career-high 24 points.
Shakamak meanwhile was going 13-of-22 from the field and hitting three 3-pointers of their own in grabbing a 32-26 halftime lead.
"We gave up 19 points in the first quarter," said McVay. "We won the next three quarters, but if you don't have a full 32-minute performance, what can you do?"
In the second half however, the Eels showed the grit, guts and passion that McVay has been expecting over the latter stages of the season.
Clay City's rally began on a Levi Seymour hoop off a nice dish from Will Kennedy and Defore rebounded a hoop for a reverse lay-in to narrow the lead to 32-30.
Sophomore point guard Ethan Stanifer answered back with a 3-pointer for the Lakers and a jumper from Tyler Richardson kept the lead seesawing between three and five points for the remainder of the quarter.
The Lakers looked like they might be poised to pull away when they were able to exert their advantage in athletic ability to take the ball to the hoop and draw fouls on back-to-back possessions.
The lead grew to 44-36 as Shakamak was perfect on all four free throws, but the Eels began their comeback after trailing 50-41 with 5:36 remaining.
At that point, Shakamak had hit nine-of-10 free throws in the quarter already.
Kyler Rhodes nailed a 3-pointer for his first points of the game to narrow the gap to 52-46 and 30 seconds later, drained another to get the Eels back within 52-49.
The Eels got a steal on the defensive end, which led to a free throw from Defore and May followed with a free throw from May at the other end to push the gap to 53-50 with just 1:05 remaining.
Rhodes got the ball in deep for the Eels and backed his defender down to within eight feet and coolly knocked home a turnaround jumper to narrow the lead to 53-52 with 40 seconds left.
The Lakers got the ball on the inbound and the Eels' defense forced a loose ball along the sideline, which they corralled for a final chance at a sectional opening win.
Rhodes would drive the paint and draw a foul with just 14 seconds left in the game, but would miss the first before a timeout by Shakamak.
After the break, Rhodes' second free throw was off the mark as well, but the Eels' Levi Seymour came up with the offensive rebound and was hammered on his shot attempt. There was no call on the miss and the battle for the loose ball wasn't for the feint of heart as sectional advancement hung in the balance.
In the midst of the wild scramble, both Logan Higgins and Will Kennedy got shots off for the Eels, but neither found net.
Eventually, Shakamak gained possession after the ball scooted out of bounds.
The Eels tried to deny on the inbound play with five seconds remaining, but Jaret May broke free on the inbound play for a dunk with one second remaining to finalize the victory.
Aferwards, McVay was complimentary of his team's effort despite the loss.
"That's as valiant an effort as we've had all year," said the Eels' coach.
Kennedy finished with 14 points for the Eels and Defore added five rebounds with Rhodes scoring eight points.
Five different Lakers had nine or more points, topped by Billy Newton with 12 points and eight rebounds.
Clay City wraps up the season at 10-12 overall and will say goodbye to a pair of graduating seniors. Both Garry Payne and Kevin Cook conclude their hoops career with the Eels. Cook missed Tuesday's sectional due to injury.
Class A White River Valley Sectional
Clay City (52)
Griffith 1-5 0-0 2, Seymour 1-2 0-0 2, Kennedy 6-14 2-2 14, Rhodes 3-8 0-2 8, Defore 9-15 2-5 24, Heffner 0-1 0-0 0, Higgins 1-2 0-0 2, Payne 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 21-47 4-9 52.
Richardson 3-7 3-4 11, Smith 3-4 4-5 11, Newton 3-7 6-6 12, Stanifer 3-8 2-2 9, May 4-4 2-3 10, Cox 1-1 0-0 2, Lynch 0-0 1-2 1. Totals: 17-31 18-22 56.
3-point fieldgoals -- CC 6-14 (Defore 4-6, Kennedy 0-2, Rhodes 2-4, Griffith 0-2), SH 4-7 (Richardson 2-3, Smith 1-2, Stanifer 1-2). Total Rebounds -- CC 18 (Defore 5), SH 24 (Newton 8). Total Fouls -- CC 16, SH 11. Turnovers -- CC 7, SH 17.