Times Sports Editor
SWITZ CITY -- If you didn't get an invitation, you might have missed the best party of the last 33 years.
Clay City is likely still celebrating the sectional championship it earned in a hard-fought championship game against Shakamak Saturday night. The Eels held off the Lakers in a game for the ages, 42-38, to advance to Saturday's Martinsville Regional to face Jac-Cen-Del.
"I don't think the kids really know how long it's really been (since Clay City won a title)," coach Grant McVay said. "This is really for all the kids, our six seniors that have stuck through it and paid the price that frankly a lot aren't willing to pay. All six of them stuck it out, but tonight, without question, shows the effort was worth it."
On Saturday night, there were plenty of storylines as Clay City squared off with the Lakers, a team that had knocked the Eels from the postseason the previous three years. Even more important was Clay City's quest for its first championship since 1976, when the Eels capped off an impressive five straight titles.
Clay City led 29-19 heading into the fourth quarter after a 3-pointer from senior Kyler Rhodes. But it was the Lakers who proved the aggressor during the early stages of the fourth period.
Jordan Crowe knocked home a 3-pointer to narrow the gap to 29-22 and Bill Newton followed with an offensive rebound and a bucket to get the Lakers within 29-24.
The Eels put the clamps on nearly everyone for the Lakers, holding all but Newton scoreless in the first half. In fact, heading into the fourth quarter, Newton had 17 of his team's 19 points.
McVay pointed out his team carried out the game's scheme to near perfection while building a lead heading down the stretch, but credited Newton for his ability.
"Our kids did an outstanding job carrying out the game plan," McVay said. "(Newton) is a kid that could just go for 30 (points) and 20 (rebounds) and just say, 'sorry game over.'
A pair of free throws by Logan Higgins edged the Eels back ahead by seven points at 31-24, but Lakers kept going to the well by lobbing the ball into the post for the 6'4 Newton.
He scored a pair of free throws and followed with a short jumper after an Eels' turnover and the lead had shrunk to 31-28.
Higgins defused the run briefly with a clutch bucket and Braxton Griffith, cold-bloodedly, sank a turnaround jumper to give the Eels a 35-28 lead with under four minutes remaining.
Shakamak's John Smith, held scoreless over the first three quarters, got untracked and hit 3-of-4 free throws and scored off an offensive rebound to get the Lakers within 35-34. Rhodes added a free throw for the Eels with 1:07 left to push the lead to 36-34 for the Eels.
With both teams in the bonus, the Lakers' Ethan Stanifer got to the line and tied the game with 55 seconds left.
Clay City took over possession and ran some time off the clock before Rhodes found an opening in the Lakers' defense and sank a leaning shot in the paint for the go-ahead bucket with 34 seconds to go.
"We knew they were going to make a run," Rhodes said afterwards. "But we all knew that what we had to do is get some (defensive) stops."
In fact, that's exactly what the Eels did following a Lakers' timeout with 28 seconds on the clock.
Tyler Richardson missed a contested shot in the paint and Jordan Defore hauled in the rebound while drawing the foul. The Eels' senior hit both ends of a 1-and-1 at the line to give the Eels a 40-36 lead with 14 seconds showing. The Lakers' Smith raced the length of the court for a lay-in and Shakamak fouled Will Kennedy on the inbounds pass with nine seconds left.
Kennedy coolly sank both shots to cap an eight-point, seven-rebound game and the Clay City fans joined their team at mid-court to start the celebration.
"This just feels really good, exciting," commented senior Braxton Griffith, who scored five points and added a rebound and a steal. "We've felt all year that this was our chance and we had to take advantage."
"I was really pleased with (the team's) body language in the walk through," McVay said. "Overall I thought we were pretty good at handling the pressure and the adversity and in the end we made enough plays."
The game didn't look as if it was going to be nearly as thrilling as each team took awhile to get into a groove.
The Lakers scored the game's first two points, but then the Eels held them scoreless for nearly eight minutes while going on a run of their own.
Clay City didn't score until Kennedy's bucket broke the ice with just 1:56 left in the first quarter. However, the Eels followed with the game's next 13 points before Newton sank a free throw with 4:09 remained in the first half.
In between, Griffith knocked home a 3-pointer, Kennedy added six of his points and Rhodes, Orry Heffner, Levi Seymour and Defore each added scores.
Defore, battled foul trouble for most of the game and McVay credited his senior with staying on top of the game despite residing on the bench for a much longer stretch than usual.
"For Jordan to sit with four fouls and for us to play that long without him and to come back and hit some pretty big free throws. It's really storybook for a lot of kids that can say they all made plays," McVay said. "I don't think anyone can say that we backed into this."
What can be said though is that this group of athletes will add their team photo alongside that of the title-winning teams of the mid-70s, which wasn't lost on one of the Eels' seniors.
"(Winning a sectional) has been our No. 1 goal," Rhodes said. "I look at those (sectional winning team) pictures almost every day before practice. And now we can say we'll be up there too."
The opening game of the Martinsville Regional will be between Waldron (10-12) and Bethesda Christian (16-7) at 10 a.m. to be followed by Clay City (17-7) against Jac-Cen-Del (21-2) at noon. The winners will face off in the title game at 8 p.m.
Tickets are $6 for each session or $9 for both.
Class A White River Valley Sectional
Clay City (42)
Griffith 2-3 0-0 5, Rhodes 3-7 1-2 8, Kennedy 2-10 4-5 8, Defore 2-4 2-2 6, Seymour 2-6 1-2 5, Higgins 3-3 2-2 8, Heffner 1-2 0-0 2. Totals: 15-35 10-13 42.
Smith 2-5 3-4 7, Stanifer 0-4 2-2 2, Newton 10-12 4-6 24, Crowe 2-8 0-0 5, VanHorn 0-1 0-0 0, Richardson 0-4 0-0 0, Langford 0-1 0-0 0. Totals: 14-35 9-12 38.
3-point fieldgoals -- CC 2-3 (Griffith 1-1, Rhodes 1-2), SH 1-10 (Crowe 1-3, Stanifer 0-4, Richardson 0-2, Smith 0-1). Total Rebounds -- CC 20 (Kennedy 7, Defore 3, Rhodes 3), SH 25 (Newton 8, Crowe 6). Total Fouls -- CC 14, SH 14. Fouled out -- SH (Richardson). Turnovers -- CC 9, SH 10.