GARNER — Garner held Clayton scoreless over the final two-plus minutes of play and won the first of clash between the two squads, 88-83, for the Greater Neuse River 4A boys basketball lead.
The two teams were scheduled to meet again on Friday night but the ice storm shifted that game until Feb. 6. Based on how well played and competitive the first encounter was and with the conference championship likely on the line, it will be the region’s most anticipated game of the season.
In Wednesday’s game, Clayton (15-2, 6-1), ranked second in the N&O rankings, pulled even at 83 on two Gary Clark free throws with 2:44 to play but couldn’t score the rest of the way against third-ranked Garner (12-2, 6-0).
“We worked hard on the defensive end of the court,” Garner coach Eddie Gray said. “We were able to get some steals off of some errant passes and turn those into points. It was a very heroic effort.”
Garner’s Demarcus Sanford drew a charge with three minutes to play on Clayton guard Anthony Gaskins, creating the first of five Comets’ possessions in the final three minutes of play that ended without a shot attempt.
“We have to learn how to play through things,” Clayton coach Denny Medlin said. “Their kids made some great plays and our kids made plays. You just have to find the way to win.”
Garner went ahead for good with 2:08 to play when sophomore guard Julius Barnes drove and dished to Patrick Henneghan in the paint.
After an exchange of misses, Sanford stole a cross-court pass on Clayton’s end. Barnes added a similar steal two possessions later. That one led to two Sanford free throws for an 87-83 lead with 28.6 seconds to play.
“We just had to spread our defense out and play our game on that end,” Barnes said. “It was just about getting pressure on the ball as they tried to bring it up court.”
Clark, a 6-foot-7 junior standout, was dominant when he could get his hands on the ball despite constant attention from one or two Garner defenders. Clark had a game-high 42 points. He was 20 of 23 from the free throw line.
Six Garner players finished in double-figures including reserve post players Foster Dunbar (12 points) and John Alston (10).
“John Alston and Foster Dunbar were great,” Gray said. “We don’t really have a proven post player. And we don’t expect those guys to score points, don’t count on getting that at all, but it really helped us tonight with the foul trouble.”
Sammy Saunders led Garner with 17 points, while Barnes contributed 15 and Sanford had 14. Jasper Stallings and Henneghan had 10 each.
The Trojans hit nine 3-pointers, shooting 64 percent from behind the arc.
“We tried to get in a zone and we took some chances on some 3s and they went in,” Barnes said. “We knew we’d have to hit some.”
The game featured 11 ties and nine lead changes. Garner’s largest lead was seven points, at 12-5. That came on a 12-0 run, which included 3s from Barnes and Saunders.
“Both teams put up a lot of points, knocked down a lot of shots,” Medlin said. “We got down to the end of the game and it wasn’t our night.”
Best: 919-524-8895, Twitter: @dclaybest