On the surface, Clayton’s 10-point win over rival West Johnston in boys basketball Tuesday night might not look like a big step forward as the second half of the Greater Neuse River 4A Conference boys basketball season awaits.
However, the 57-47 victory saw the Comets outscore West by 20 points over the final 20 minutes of play as the defensive execution and offensive production long sought after started to show up consistently.
The win moved Clayton to 2-5 in conference play (8-9 overall) and a game out of fifth place and two-and-a-half games out of third place for the time being.
“We started playing well midway of the second quarter,” said Clayton coach Denny Medlin. “I think we outscored them by 20 points the rest of the way, but we missed 18 free throws.”
Clayton standout guard Tre Armstead helped spark the surge with his slashing drives to the basket on offense. Defensively, the Comets made West settle for shots under pressure, which often didn’t find the mark.
West led 21-11 with four minutes to play in the first half, then Clayton scored 10 of the final 11 points of the half to close within 22-21. Mason Medlin hit a 3-pointer to start Clayton’s push, which included three driving baskets by Armstead.
Armstead finished with a game-high 28 points. Five other Clayton players scored between four and seven points.
“Tre started beating us to the basket in the second and third quarter and it was as simple as that,” West Johnston coach Kris Bennett said. “Clayton is always a great drive and dish team. They started doing it in the second quarter and continued it through the third.”
West wasn’t able to get its main inside presence — Scott Chesnutt — going consistently on the offensive end. Chesnutt finished with nine points.
Cameron Williams led the Wildcats (1-14, 0-6) with 11 points and Ryan Holmes added 10.
West scored on its first two possessions of the second half to take a 26-23 lead, but Clayton countered with a 16-3 scoring run to take control of the contest.
“Our issue continues to be scoring consistently,” Bennett said. “We take good shots, get to good places on the floor. We only had 12 turnovers tonight: six in each half, which is really good against a team like Clayton.
“We didn’t shoot our free throws like we needed to and Clayton hurt us on the board late.”
West did get within 46-44 on a three-point play by Ryan Holmes and a Chestnutt free throw with just under four minutes to play, but Clayton outscored the Wildcats 11-3 the rest of the way.
“Our guys compete every time out,” Medlin said. “We can make a lot of mistakes but we do it in the context of trying to play our best. The key to the second half of our season is just playing better, getting better at execution and staying healthy.”
The Comets’ four losses to teams not named Garner in conference play — Harnett Central, Knightdale, East Wake and Rolesville — have come in close contests. Clayton (8-9, 2-5) has been outscored by an average of a little over six points in those losses. But losses there are the difference between being in the race for second place in the Greater Neuse River 4A Conference and the Comets’ current situation: on the outside of the playoff conversation.
“We’ve just got to execute,” Medlin said. “When we do it and do it right, we can play very well. If we execute what we do when we’re playing well on both ends of the court, we can be a very good team.”