The clock read 3:12 left in the third quarter at Mervo when the Lake Clifton boys basketball team settled into a zone defense with the look of a confident and fierce unit.
And while the No. 6 Lakers still had a lot of work left — their most recent basket had cut the home team’s once-big lead to six points — they knew they were on to something big.
Lake Clifton was able to completely sustain its second-half momentum — a mix of defense limiting the No. 11 Mustangs to three field goals while relentlessly attacking the basket on offense to stunningly win going away, 56-43.
Senior guard Zaccheus Blackwell led the way with 21 points; Kelvin Spruill and Jalen Morris each added 10; and Michael Gray scored six of his eight points in the closing half.
The Lakers, who trailed 17-1 midway through the first quarter, improved to 9-4 overall and 4-0 in Baltimore City’s A Division. Mervo is now 9-4 and 1-2 in league play.
Trailing by such a wide margin so early and then down 33-22 at the half, the Lakers dug in and stayed the course with a satisfying character win at the finish line.
“We had to stay focused and stay locked in — don’t go over our heads or too fast,” Blackwell said. “Our main goal was to stay together and win together.”
The game turned on the Lakers’ defensive intensity, their eagerness to attack the rim on offense along with some timely 3-pointers.
While holding the Mustangs to one field goal in the third quarter, shots that weren’t falling in the first half were going in. Spruill scored twice getting to the basket and then Blackwell’s second 3 in the quarter put the Lakers within 37-36 with 2:11 left in the frame.
Blackwell’s baseline drive on their next possession gave them the lead for good. Gray closed out the quarter with consecutive baskets for a 43-37 lead that grew as the Lakers took complete hold of the game in the fourth.
“A lot of times, there’s no way you climb back from the start that they had,” said Lake Clifton coach Herman “Tree” Harried. “But we weathered the storm — kept grinding, kept grinding and kept grinding — and got it to a point where we could overcome. This was on the road — a hostile environment — so it was a big one for us. Mervo was good, they were very good, but we were just able to turn it up another level.”
Gray, an All-Metro second-team pick last season, best represented the Lakers resilience. His offensive game was off as the Mustangs built the early advantage — he only made two free throws in the first half — but he made a positive and needed impact later in helping close out the comeback.
“All I did was stay with my team, bring them together, listen to my coach and he led us to the win,” he said.
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The loss was a tough one for the Mustangs. They showed their potential against an elite team with the dominating start — senior Will Thomas led them with 14 points — but need to show more poise when adversity hits. Coach Deron Harding hopes the team can grow and learn from the setback.
“My halftime speech was that we had to stay together mentally because we knew Lake Clifton would try to get us to crack,” he said. “They hung in and hung in and then we finally cracked. In order to become an elite team, we have to be mentally tough, especially down the stretch. We’re working hard on becoming an elite team, and that is an obstacle we need to overcome.”