y Brian Paglia
The final moments of basketball games have tormented Stockbridge all season, or, more accurately, Stockbridge has tormented itself. Too often the inexperienced group has let comfortable leads wilt, unable to match the vigor of opposing teams when they threaten the Tigers' advantage.
Case in point: three days ago, when they led by six at Region 4-AAAA leader Jonesboro but folded. Perhaps they had gotten too comfortable, perhaps the hostile environment had left them disoriented. So faced with a similar dilemma Friday night, Stockbridge had a chance in their regular season finale to prove to themselves they could close out games.
It came to Kevin Burke hitting two free throws with the North Clayton crowd roaring to seal Stockbridge's 50-47 victory after the Tigers had led by as many as 11. But Burke made clutch shots, giving Stockbridge a crucial tie-breaker over North Clayton and a lesson learned with its regular season completed.
"It was the way that we lost," Burke said about the loss to Jonesboro Tuesday, "because we needed that. We need to learn how to not choke so much. We always choke at the end. But now we finally learned from the Jonesboro game. We came back hard this game. We've learned to deal with adversity."
Taking advantage of its quickness in the post, Stockbridge (15-10, 10-6) concentrated on finding forwards Burke and Dante Campbell. With their slight advantage in quickness, the two hit several perimeter shots to force North Clayton's forwards away from the basket. Thus, Burke and Campbell had their choice to shoot from outside or drive by their defenders.
That's how Burke gave Stockbridge the lead for good down the stretch. Working in isolation at the top of the key, Burke drove down the lane and hit a tough floater that banked off the glass to put Stockbridge up 48-47. Burke finished with 18 points, key production while the Tigers' leading scorer, Chris Davis, had a quiet 11 points.
"Our plan was, I think our post players are a little bit quicker than theirs," Stockbridge coach Duane Kelley said. "When it went man-to-man, we were trying to get our post players to come out and take them on the wing and take them to the basket, because I've got post players that have a pretty good handle."
North Clayton (15-9, 9-6) managed to mount a comeback from a 27-16 halftime deficit with a complete offensive performance. Antwaun Murphy hit one of his three 3s on the night, and Clarence Jackson (13 points) and Torian Box (10 points) converted three-point plays to take a 36-35 lead.
Zach Bradley gave the Eagles its final lead with 35.3 seconds left, answering Davis' tough drive that put Stockbridge up one with a courageous drive of his own. But when Bradley tried to away, he lost the ball in traffic, and North Clayton was forced to foul.
· North Clayton 37, Stockbridge 34 (Girls): The Lady Tigers' Kyra Chandler's last-second 3 clanked off the rim and the Lady Eagles survived an erratic performance to gain a Region 4-AAAA victory at home Friday night.
North Clayton overcame a seven-point fourth quarter deficit thanks to Crystal Nwapara. She had scored just two points until scoring the Lady Eagles' final five.
After Nwapara's putback tied the game at 33, she made one free throw and then a deft post shot with 35.8 seconds left. Nwapara finished with seven points and 11 rebounds.
Valencia Williams led North Clayton (14-10, 9-6) with 11 points.
Stockbridge seized the lead with a disciplined zone defense in the third quarter. The Lady Tigers held North Clayton to just three points in the quarter whiel going up 29-22, but couldn't sustain its defensive intensity.
Synamon Martin led Stockbridge (10-15, 5-11) with 15 points.drive again down by one with the seconds ticking