FAYETTEVILLE — Clayton’s appearance in the 4A boys’ basketball Eastern Regional semifinal Tuesday night started well enough, with sharpshooter Anthony Gaskins finding nothing but the bottom of the net on a 23-foot 3-point shot 15 seconds into the game.
From there, however, it was Fayetteville 71st filling up the Crown Coliseum atmosphere with on-the-mark shots as the Falcons rolled to an 84-69 victory.
Seventy-First (28-2) moved into Saturday’s noon regional final showdown with Broughton (25-5). The Comets finished the season with a school record for wins, going 28-3.
The Falcons shot 58 percent from the field and made nine of 17 3-pointers.
They made the Comets pay for nearly every turnover they committed and allowed only brief hopes for a comeback.
Seventy-First guard Marcus Williams blocked two Comets 3-point attempts, turning one into a layup for himself on the other end late in the first quarter that started a 15-4 run by the Falcons.
“I thought a telling possession was when we got an open look at the top of the key and suddenly there’s a guy (Williams) there to block it,” said Clayton coach Denny Medlin. “They’re long, athletic and quick to close out the distance on 3s.”
The Falcons outscored Clayton 23-8 in the second quarter.
The Falcons’ stingy man defense didn’t prevent Clayton from moving the ball on the offensive end but it did keep the Comets from consistently getting the ball into the hands of Gaskins and junior standout Gary Clark, who was averaging 35 points in the playoffs entering Tuesday’s game.
Clark finished with 22 points and 11 rebounds. Gaskins had 22 points as well.
Seventy-First roared to a 43-25 lead in the final four-plus minutes of the first half as Sidney Knox and Quincy Swait drilled key 3-pointers late in the half.
“What hurt us in the first half was giving up long rebounds that they were able to turn into easy baskets and the turnovers that they scored off of,” Medlin said. “Everything we did wrong, it just snowballed for them in the first half.”
The Comets had 11 defensive rebounds on the night.
Knox had a game-high 23 points, including nine-of-13 shooting from the field.
The Falcons pushed the lead to 63-37 on a three-point play by Knox with 1:43 to play in the third quarter.
The Comets did get within nine points with 4:37 to play on an offensive rebound follow shot – with the foul – by Clark, but the Falcons scored the game’s next six points to end hopes for an epic comeback.
“It was just too much of an uphill climb,” Medlin said.
Second-chance scoring gave Clayton that slim chance it had to complete the comeback as it had 13 points in the second half after offensive rebounds.
The Falcons seemed to always find an open man and knock down the open shot against Clayton’s trapping defense as the Comets hustled to get back into the game.
“They give you a lot of scramble defense and I thought we’d be able to get some open looks if we were patient,” said 71st coach David Simmons. “Once we got that first reversal and hit the open shot, that was a big key. We were fortunate to hit some big shots.”
A telling trade of possessions in the second half came after Clayton’s Dawson Medlin hit a 3-pointer to get Clayton within 62-47 with 38 seconds to play in the third quarter.
The Falcons calmly got by the Comets’ trapping full-court press, pushing the ball to Dominic Page in the right corner. Page was briefly trapped but found Jalen Vince open at the top of the key.
When Clayton’s defense was drawn to Vince, he swung the ball to Williams in the left hand corner and Williams drained a 3-pointer to push the lead back to 18.
Williams finished with 16 points, and Page added 15 on 7-of-9 shooting from the field.
The Comets shot 23 percent from 3-point range (5-for-21) on the night and 44 percent from the field.