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BENSON — An 84-52 victory for the Clayton boys basketball team over West Johnston on Thursday night finished out an undefeated 10-0 record in the 3-A Greater Neuse River this season for the program.
Coming into the game, the Comets had already locked in the conference title, but putting the exclamation point on an unblemished campaign didn’t come with much celebration at all. The team has already set its sights on bigger goals.
“One of the things about this that’s neat about our guys is we’re not getting overly excited about the conference championship,” Clayton head coach Denny Medlin said. “That was an expectation. It was a goal; we’ve reached it, but we’ve got higher expectations. We’re trying to win a state championship.”
Clayton (22-2, 10-0), the No. 11 team in the 3-A rankings according to maxpreps.com, finished out the regular season with 20-straight victories to capture its eighth conference championship since 2003. The team’s last loss came to Garner Magnet on Nov. 26.
Thursday’s game against the Wildcats proved to be another dominant performance for the team. Junior B.J. Freeman scored the first seven points, part of a 10-0 run to start the game, and for the rest of the game, the Comets maintained a double-digit lead.
Throughout the season, Clayton has had a mindset to take each game one at a time, with determination not to lose, like it did twice in the first four games.
“After those Garner games, I feel like we stepped up and we set that pace and we had the mindset, ‘Oh, we’re not going to lose anymore.’ We didn’t like the feeling of losing, so we worked hard in practice, played as a team and got wins.”
The team left no doubt in the regular-season finale.
In that first quarter, West Johnston head coach Chucky Brown — a former N.C. State standout and NBA veteran -— was ejected after jawing with the referees. Brown received an initial technical from the referee after the Wildcats fouled senior Mason Rusch, then when another referee came over to mediate, he received another technical and was tossed. The resulting fouls gave Rusch six free throws in a row, all which he made, and Clayton led by 18 entering the second quarter. By halftime, Clayton led by 26.
Getting out to such a lead allowed one of the best things to come from the win, Freeman said.
“Everybody got in the game, pretty much,” he said. “Some players on the bench sometimes don’t get the minutes like the starters do and I got happy because all our team got in.”
The dominant performance ended with nine Comets scoring. Freeman led all scorers with 23 points, while Rusch added 18 and Justin Bell pitched in 11. For West Johnston, senior point guard Brandon Hicks was the lone player to reach double digits, scoring 11 points.
After the win, Clayton will turn its attention to the postseason, starting with the conference tournament. The team hopes that the strategy that got it this far can carry it deep into the playoffs.
“We just took it one game at a time and considered every single game a championship game because you’ve got to have the best record in the regular season,” Medlin said. “So every game matters, so we just took it one game at a time and just focus on the here and now.”
Freeman 23, Ross 9, Bell 11, Howard 9, Rusch 18, Sanders 2, Long 3, Hatton 6, Tate 2, Woznichak 1.
West Johnston (52)
Dildy 2, Monk 4, Grooms 8, Brower 6, Tyrell 5, Hicks 11, Tew 2, Brisson 2, Harmon 6. Brockington 6.
Score by quarters:
Clayton 22 20 22 20 — 84
West Johnston 4 14 21 13 — 52