For all the times during Saturday night’s Class 2A state final when the Lake Clifton boys basketball team might have looked up at the Xfinity Center scoreboard and seen only a bleak future, the Lakers’ defining moment might have come when they had never been closer to a title.
With Lake Clifton senior center Ronald Lucas at the foul line and the No. 13 Lakers up six on North Caroline with less than 20 seconds to play, it would have been easy for teammate Michael Gray to ease up. But after a missed free throw, the sophomore guard, sidelined most of the game by foul trouble, chased down the loose ball as if his future depended on it. Gray got his hands on the rebound, threw the ball off a Bulldogs defender’s legs and out of bounds, and 15.8 seconds later, Lake Clifton was celebrating the program’s fifth state crown and first since 2012.
Senior guards Steven Parker and Benjamin Carter each finished with 15 points in the Lakers’ 63-55 win, while Lucas finished with 14 points on 6-for-7 shooting, along with 13 rebounds and three blocks. Joey Adams had a game-high 26 points for North Caroline (19-7).
“If you can ask me every negative scenario in basketball, I think we've had some point of dealing with it this year,” Lake Clifton coach Herman “Tree” Harried said. “My job is just to try to teach them how to overcome it, and they've done a fantastic job.”
It wasn’t until the fourth quarter that Lake Clifton (22-5) took any kind of control. The final eight minutes went back and forth, with all the expected players taking center stage. Carter hit a layup on the first play of the period to tie the game at 49. Adams answered with a make of his own.
No team led by more than two until Carter’s corner 3-pointer gave Lake Clifton a 57-54 lead with under three minutes remaining. The advantage only grew as the Bulldogs cooled off from the field and the Lakers locked in at the free-throw line.
And there were a lot of trips there, with more total fouls called (38) than minutes in the game. After Lake Clifton senior guard Chauncey Smith (eight points) was whistled for his fourth foul midway through the third quarter, Adams capped a personal 6-0 run with a 3-pointer for a 47-37 lead.
The Lakers were undeterred. They scored 10 of the next 12 points to set the stage for a classic forth quarter.
“We've been through a lot this year — injuries, ups and downs, wins and losses and things like that,” Harried said. “I was like: 'This ain't the time to lose to lose it now. This ain't the time.' ”
For much of the first half, Lake Clifton couldn’t stop North Caroline’s outside shooting. Nor could the Lakers stop their mounting foul count. They had six team fouls less than seven minutes into the game. The Bulldogs drew three on one possession alone.
With North Caroline up 22-16 in the second quarter, Lake Clifton’s Gray, who had a game-high-tying 22 points in Friday’s 68-61 semifinal victory over Oakdale, picked up his third personal foul. He watched from the bench as the Bulldogs went up by eight on two subsequent free throws, and later by as many as 11 with over four minutes left in the half.
Lake Clifton started to figure things out toward the end. An 11-2 run drew the Lakers to within two before they went into the half down 35-29. In the team’s previous state final appearance, in 2016, Lake Clifton had held a six-point lead entering the fourth quarter of an eventual loss to Pocomoke.
With many of those same Lakers back, only wiser and more mature, they knew the game was still theirs to win.
“I just played with the pain from the loss,” Lucas said.
Added Parker: “We worked hard to get here. ... This year, we stuck together and we pulled it out, and it feels good to end it like this.’
L - Parker 15, Carter 15, Lucas 14, Harried 6, Smith 8, Gray 5
N - Adams 26, Bailey 17, Franklin 7, Wayman 5