CLAYTON — Senior forward Gary Clark had a “take that” moment against Middle Creek on Tuesday night that helped Clayton’s basketball team win its second straight game to the start the season.
Clark, a 6-foot-8 force who can run the floor and handle the ball, answered a dunk by Middle Creek’s Fred Iruafemi midway through the fourth quarter with one of his own – putting the momentum squarely in the Comets’ corner in Clayton’s hard-fought 68-62 nonconference victory.
Iruafemi had stolen a pass intended for Clark near half court and took the ball hard to the basket for a high-rise dunk, drawing a foul in the process, and cutting the Clayton lead to 56-53. Iruafemi missed the free throw, however, and Clark grabbed the rebound.
Then it was showtime.
Clark dribbled the length of the court, spinning in the lane past a Middle Creek defender and throwing down a thunderous dunk that brought the Comets fans to their feet.
“I had told coach and our players when he was shooting the free throw (after the dunk) that it was my fault,” Clark said. “Coach had been telling me to go to the ball when they were passing it to me. That time, I did not go to the ball and he got a big-time dunk off one of our players playing hard. I wanted to return the favor.
“I just came down and knew that nobody was going to step in front of me.”
Clark, who has signed with Cincinnati, finished with 25 points. He scored his first basket on a baseline dunk, simply jumping past a Middle Creek defender for a two-handed jam. He displayed a variety of offensive moves, including a soft jump hook, and numerous driving moves to the basket. Early in the game, he was on the perimeter more often but went to a low post position in the fourth quarter.
Clayton trailed 21-16 at the end of the first period and it was tied at 32 at halftime. With the Comets up 47-46 entering the final quarter, Clark started the period with a dunk on the blocks, then scored again inside after a missed 3-pointer by Middle Creek.
On the Mustangs’ next possession, he blocked a shot and then assisted on a basket by sophomore point guard Tre Armstead (15 points). In the first 41/2 minutes of the final quarter, Clark either scored the bucket or had an assist on a 3-pointer by Dawson Medlin that followed a Middle Creek 3-pointer that had cut the Comets’ lead to 53-49.
“I thought it was a great game,” Middle Creek coach David Kushner said. “I thought (Clayton) made some really big shots. I thought the Medlin kid’s 3 after we hit a 3 changed things. After we had a big dunk, Gary Clark came right back and had a big dunk. They answered everything we did.
“We just really didn’t shoot well tonight. We are predicated on 3-point shooting and we went 9-for-36 on 3s. My three best shooters went 6-for-36. I don’t know if it was first-game jitters. But I like our fight.”
While the Mustangs were missing 3-pointers, it was creating problems for the Comets on the boards, coach Denny Medlin said.
“When you shoot that many 3s, there are a lot of long rebounds, and they were pretty quick to the ball,” Coach Medlin said. “They only hit four 3s in the first half but had 32 points, and a lot of those points came after long offensive rebounds.”
Medlin went to a zone defense and the rebounds started going to the Comets. And Clayton went more to a half-court offense instead of relying on the transition game.
“They were getting off the 3s, but we were in the paint more and getting rebounds,” Medlin said. “A lot of our turnovers had come in transition so we got back to getting the ball back inside to Gary. That was a big deal and helped us take care of the ball. But we are going to keep working on pushing it and playing in transition because I think we are a pretty good transition team.
“It was a good game. I thought all our kids played hard.”
After a 78-30 blowout of South Johnston in the season opener on Monday, the Comets got a test against Middle Creek, a program with a winning history and some quick ball-hawking players.
“Being that we have so many young guys that haven’t been in that situation where every play matters, having a close game early was really big for us,” Clark said. “I love these games myself because it tests your will to win.”
Middle Creek wouldn’t go away at the end, pulling within 64-62 with a minute to play.
Armstead sealed it at the free throw line for the Comets, making four of four from the line in the final 55 seconds.
“I feel proud of my guys for doing what they had to do to win,” coach Medlin said. “It was great for us to be in a game that were tied at halftime. It was great to get something that we can learn from and build on and also get a win.”