CLAYTON — Top-seeded Clayton had to fight to the end to hold off Holly Springs Monday night.
But junior center Gary Clark was just a bit too much for the Golden Hawks, pouring in 40 points with 14 rebounds and three blocked shots as the Comets took an 86-81 victory in the first round of the state 4A basketball playoffs.
The win, Clayton’s 11th straight, advanced the 26-2 Greater Neuse River champions to Wednesday’s second round home game against East No. 9 seed Wilmington Ashley (17-8).
“I know so much depends on how well people shoot, and (Holly Springs) shot the lights out and hardly ever missed,” said Clayton coach Denny Medlin, whose team advanced to the third round last year. “We kept trying to pound it in to Gary and they kept raining in ‘threes.’ They were hard to guard.
“Gary played great, and we’ve come to expect him to play great. Right now we just have to make sure his (left) knee is healthy. He hyperextended it (in the final two minutes, but did return to the game) and we want to get it healthy.”
Clayton won despite a huge performance from senior guard Anthanee Doyle, who finished with 30 points to lead four Golden Hawks in double figures.
Holly Springs, which earned the wild card and the No. 16 seed after finishing sixth in the Tri-Nine, finished 12-14. The Golden Hawks hit 13 3-pointers in the game.
“I’m more that proud of the effort,” said Holly Springs coach Thurman Jordan, who was coaching the Golden Hawks when they were also members of the Greater Neuse. “Our guys played without any fear and with a whole lot of confidence against a pretty strong team.”
Clayton also got a big night from senior guard Anthony Gaskins, who finished with 20 points.
Deojunique Flippin added 16 points for Holly Springs, while fellow senior Donyell Lowe and junior Craig McDaniel chipped in 12 apiece.
The 6-7 Clark, who scored the first points of the game on a dunk from Gaskins, had two three-point plays and a 3-pointer.
“I knew they’d some out and play hard,” said Clark, who already has nine offers from Division I schools. “Nobody wants to end their season. I want our team to make the state championship, so I know I need to go play my butt off every night.”
Holly Springs led 20-15 after one period, and the Comets didn’t take the lead for good until Chris Dixon’s three-point play with 3:30 left in the half made it 30-29 and started a 19-2 run.
But the Golden Hawks never folded. Clayton was up 72-62 following a Gaskins free throw with 3:44 left, but Holly Springs cut the margin to 84-81 on a Jonathan Wooten 3-pointer with 8.8 seconds to go.
Gaskins then hit a pair of free throws with 3.1 seconds remaining to seal the result.
“We still need to play better defensively,” Gaskins said. “We couldn’t stop (Doyle) from shooting, but offensively we did pretty good.”
Doyle was emotional after seeing his team come up short despite the Herculean effort.
“We definitely put forth a lot of effort,” said Doyle, who had fouled out to send Gaskins to the line in the closing seconds. “We played our hearts out, and showed that even though we had the bottom seed we could play with the best.”