CLAYTON — When Claytons Gary Clark throws down one of his explosive dunks, the crowd always reacts raucous cheers and high-fives from the Comets fans at home and silence from opponents on the road.
When the 6-foot-8 junior soars for an alley-oop pass on the break or grabs a rebound above the rim and jams it through, there also is an on-the-court impact for the Comets.
Clarks dunks elevate the entire team, and have often led to offensive spurts as the Comets have won 14 of their first 15 games this season.
We kind of feed off of it, Clark said of his dunks. I kind of go, Lets go boys, come on, time to turn it up.
When I get a dunk, its like my adrenalin really gets going. I play hard [all the time], but after a dunk, its like, all right, come on.
The Comets, ranked second in the N&O area poll, will meet defending Greater Neuse River 4A Conference champion Garner (11-2 through its first 13 games and ranked third) twice this week, first on Wednesday in a rescheduled game, then again on Friday. Its a two-game stretch that many think will determine the leagues regular-season champion.
A Clark dunk here or there could change the scope of either of those games, as they often have for Clayton this season.
When Clark ups the intensity, the Comets follow suit. A few examples:
- Against Cleveland on Dec. 5, the Comets were ahead 10-6 when Devon Terry and Clark connected for dunks on back-to-back possessions to start a 9-0 run to end the first quarter. Clayton went on to win 68-30.
- Against Wilson Hunt on Dec. 11, Clark dunked on an assist from Anthony Gaskins and drew a foul for a three-point play. Clayton, ahead 22-20 before the play, ended the half on a 5-1 spurt and continued the run to start the second half to take a 33-21 lead.
- Against Smithfield-Selma on Jan. 4, Clark went on a solo tear after a second half-opening dunk, scoring the first 14 points of the second half after being limited to four free throws in the first half. The Comets won 78-45.
- Against West Johnston on Jan. 11, the Comets fell behind 12-0. Clark took an alley oop pass and was bumped on the way up for a dunk. He still had enough athletic ability to bank in a shot and convert the 3-point play. The Comets closed the quarter with an 11-2 run in just over two minutes. Clark dunked on a follow shot in the third period when the Comets were up 43-37 and the Comets closed with a 17-5 run to win 60-42.
Clark, a Division I prospect who has a scholarship offer from ACC member Clemson and numerous other schools, is averaging 23 points and 15 rebounds per game. Hes collecting about three dunks per game, and has at least one dunk in every Clayton game this season.
Comets coach Denny Medlin looks at Clarks dunks as a sign that his team is executing at a high level. And the result often is that the energy level often gets a boost.
They can look at it as a dunk picks them up, Medlin said. But the way I look at it, when hes getting dunks that means hes playing hard and when hes playing hard everybody feeds off that.
Its an intensity issue. It means we are executing.
Gaskins, a senior guard who is averaging 17 points per game and about four assists, makes sure before every game to tell his big man to be looking for the lob.
Before the game well be talking and I tell him, Im going to try and get you at least two alley-oop dunks tonight. I know hes going to catch it no matter where I throw it, Gaskins said.
When he goes past me [on the break] I can tell right then if he is going to go for the alley oop or not.
When Clark grabs the pass and brings the crowd to its feet, Gaskins said his teammates respond as well.
When he dunks, it makes the whole team want to play extra hard because we know our fans are going to be behind us.
I know when hes playing hard and getting dunks, we have to help.
Medlin says the Comets defense also can start a spurt, with Clark often getting a dunk along the way.
Its not only Gary dunking, Medlin said. When Anthony [Gaskins] gets a steal, when we trap and force a turnover, everybodys energy picks up and when we are doing that kind of stuff, Gary tends to get more dunks.
Not everybody has his length and athleticism. Its exciting when he goes up for a dunk.
The Comets have only one set play designed to get Clark a dunk, Medlin said. Almost all of the juniors dunks are in transition or after an offensive rebound.
Regardless, its a big part of the Comets success -- a crowd pleaser, a team energizer.
We talk about it after games, Clark said of the crowd reaction. We watch it on film, how crazy everybody goes. We can see them. But we try to stay focused on the game.
And that focus and extra energy often results in good things for the Comets.