CLAYTON — Senior Night didn’t go according to plan for Clayton standout Gary Clark, but he nonetheless left Comets fans with something to remember Monday night.
Clark, a 6-foot-8 forward who is one of the top players in the state, sat out 10 minutes of the first half with two fouls and had just four points at the break as the Comets clung to a 21-20 lead. In the second half, he put on a display of power basketball that was jaw-dropping at times – pouring in 24 points in the final two periods to lead the Comets to a 65-46 victory.
“I definitely didn’t come out thinking I was going to get in foul trouble early,” said Clark, who has signed with Cincinnati. “It was just cheap fouls I shouldn’t have gotten, but they just kind of happened.
“I knew I had to come out in the second half and really play aggressive. I just wanted to make my presence known down low.”
Clark did just that, particularly in the final quarter when the Comets (19-4, 12-1 Greater Neuse River 4A Conference) pulled away.
After getting 11 points from Clark in the third quarter, the Comets were up just 39-36 going into the final eight minutes.
Clark started off the fourth period with an alley-oop jam and the Comets opened the final period with a 19-2 run that buried the Wildcats (6-16, 3-10). Clark ended his night with a signature move, taking the ball coast-to-coast and elevating for a monstrous dunk with just over a minute remaining.
Clayton coach Denny Medlin then removed Clark from the game amid roars from the Comets fans. The big man had delivered big-time despite his first-half foul trouble.
“I thought for three of four quarters we really played well and matched them shot for shot for a long time,” West Johnston coach Kris Bennett said. “Then Clark took over in the fourth quarter like a player of his caliber should do. We had match-up problems with him and I thought our shooting went a little cold to start the quarter.
“And then we got down and we got in a situation where we took some quick shots to try to make up the lead and they just didn’t fall for us.”
West Johnston was led by junior guard Cameron Williams with 20 points.
Chris Dixon added 10 points for Clayton, which scored 44 second-half points and had nine players in the scoring column.
“Senior Night is an emotional night and I think we came out wanting to hit a home run right away,” Coach Medlin said. “We didn’t move the ball well in the first half; we didn’t establish Gary inside. And we didn’t get back on defense; we were reaching. We were just trying to go for the grand slam right away.
“The second half, we hunkered down and played good defense. We moved the ball well and established Gary inside and got back to doing what we do.”
For Medlin, this group of seniors was a memorable one. Not only did it include Clark, one of the best ever to play for the Comets, but it included four starters – Clark, Dixon, Jake Turner and Coach Medlin’s son, Dawson.
“It’s a really special group,” Coach Medlin said. “I got choked up in pregame just talking about it. They are real high-character guys. Gary has been a good role model for everybody -- little kids in the community, other really good players in the area. Gary is a great role model and does things the right way.
“Dawson has lived Clayton basketball his entire life. Former players basically raised him from the time he was a toddler running through the gym and riding on the ball rack. I always looked forward to him being here and now he is here. It’s been really special.”
The Comets, who won the conference tournament last season and advanced to the Eastern Regionals before losing to Fayetteville Seventy-First, clinched at least a share of first place in the conference. With no conference tournament because of games postponed by last week’s snow, gaining the top seed from the conference will be important to the Comets.
That will mean some home games in the playoffs, and the Comets are 20-1 at home the past two seasons.
“Winning the conference is one of our goals,” Coach Medlin said. “These guys can come back in the future and see a banner hanging in the lobby with 2014 on it. I am real proud of that. It wasn’t easy.”