T.J. Wells’ biggest contribution to Apex’s thrilling 79-75 overtime win over Clayton Friday in the NCHSAA Class 4A boys’ basketball regional semifinal didn’t show up in the stat line. After all, he didn’t score in the contest. And although he drew plenty of “oohs” and “ahs” when he leapt over the courtside press row table to save the ball for the Cougars twice, that wasn’t it either.
His biggest contribution was his suggestion to get the ball to fellow senior guard T.J. Evans when the Cougars needed their most important basket of the season, one that would keep Apex alive in its quest for a regional championship.
“T.J. Wells called for us to get the ball to T.J. Evans,” Apex coach David Neal said. “That’s the kind of guy he is.”
Evans, with his team down 64-62, nailed a 15-foot baseline jumper under pressure to tie the game. The Cougars kept the ball out of the hands of Clayton standout Gary Clark on the final possession of regulation, then scored on their first four possessions of overtime to make their first regional final since 2008.
The Cougars (21-7) will meet either Millbrook or Panther Creek at 6 p.m. Saturday at Crown Coliseum in the regional final.
Wells, who took a hard fall down the stretch on his already tender hip, had a game-high eight assists. Evans (25 points) and Ian Boyd (26 points, 10 rebounds) dominated for Apex.
The Cougars thrived in transition play, while Clayton was at its best in its half-court offense around Clark, a Cincinnati recruit.
“It was a great basketball game,” Neal said. “Clayton played awesome. Gary Clark has got to be the best big man I’ve ever coached against.”
Clark finished with 36 points and 19 rebounds.
“The effectiveness of Clayton’s motion offense was very impressive to me,” Neal said. “I thought we’d be able to get more stops but they consistently got the ball to Clark. We mixed it up more defensively in the second half and that helped us on defense.”
Apex led for most of the first half but the Comets (23-5) edged ahead at the break with a 26-point second quarter capped by a driving Jake Turner bucket just before the horn.
Neither team led by more than five in the second half.
After Evans’ bucket tied things at 62, Clayton held for the final shot and tried to get the ball to Clark but Apex’s trapping defense didn’t present that opportunity. The defensive choice did free up sophomore guard Tre Armstead for a floating 15-footer that bounced off of the rim.
“We got a great look,” Clayton coach Denny Medlin said. “Apex made it tough for us to get the ball to Gary but that gave Tre a good look. That’s a shot we like in that situation.
“There are things we could have done better, but we had our chances to win. There will always be things you think about.”
The Comets had four players in double figures: Clark, Armstead (11), Turner (10) and Chris Dixon (10). Malik Williams had 13 points and eight boards for the Cougars.
Clayton kept plugging after falling behind by six in overtime, pulling within 77-75 on a Clark basket with 9.8 seconds to play. Forced to foul, the Comets sent Apex reserve John Kitoko to the line who knocked down both free throws. Kitoko came on with three minutes to play in overtime after Wells fouled out.
“Jon gave us some great minutes and we hit the free throws when we had to,” Neal said. “They’ve just got a lot of heart. They’ve battled through a lot.”