By Brian Paglia
That North Clayton held a slim lead at Stockbridge as the game wound down Friday night brought forth unfortunate memories of a year ago for the Eagles. Chances were the game would be decided by North Clayton's performance at the free throw line, which was the cause of 11 losses last season; and the cause of months and months of intentional effort to improve that facet of its game.
The effect was a marked improvement in North Clayton's shooting percentage at the line. But not Friday night. Friday night it took other facets of the Eagles' game. Hustle for one, like when Stockbridge went to inbound the ball with less than 30 seconds left, down by three, and Clarence Jackson snatched the pass and made a free throw to cement a 69-65 North Clayton win in a Region 4-AAAA game.
"That's what (Clarence) is here for, because we know that he's going to give us the plays to put us over the top," said North Clayton guard Zachary Bradley, who finished with 12 points.
The Eagles (21-2, 13-2) held a double-digit lead throughout much of the second quarter on their ability to attack the basket seemingly at will against Stockbridge (13-11, 8-8). Antwuan Murphy finished off swift fastbreak opportunities. Jimmy Williams and Bradley found the lane there for the taking. Marcus Hunt benefited from North Clayton's fluid, crisp offensive execution, finishing backdoor and inbound passes with layups and occasionally alley-oops.
Hunt didn't get the opportunity to contribute much of last season due to an injury that forced him to miss the last half of the season, but he has become a dependable scoring option just as a sophomore.
"At the beginning of the season, my teammates told me they depended on me," Hunt said. "They had a lot of confidence in me. I just took it to mind and got to work."
Hunt shouldered much of the offensive load in the first half, when he scored 18 of his game-high 26 points, including eight straight at one point in the first quarter that gave North Clayton a 22-11 lead.
When he left early in the third quarter after coming down hard on his elbow on a missed layup, Stockbridge began to mount its comeback. Adonis Durden scored eight of his 12 points in the quarter. His tough 3 with a defender flying in his face cut the lead to 45-53. He came back on the Tigers' next possession, drove to the basket and hit a tough, short jumpshot to tie the game.
The problem was a symptom, according the North Clayton coach Martisse Troup, of the Eagles rushing through their offense. They'd break Stockbridge's press, rush a layup or jumpshot and be slow to get back on defense.
"We weren't getting back on defense," Troup said. "They were killing us in transition. They outplayed us in the third quarter."
But Hunt returned in the fourth quarter; his elbow injury apparently just a shot to the funny bone. He and Jackson combined to score 15 of North Clayton's 20 points in the quarter.
That was enough to offset North Clayton's woes at the free throw line. Troup said the Eagles have become an 80 percent free throw shooting team. They weren't Friday night; they made just 9 of 19 from the foul line.
But North Clayton stuck to its brand of basketball despite the familiar struggles, a formula that's worked just fine through 11 straight wins and counting.
"Everybody's going to come head-hunting us," Bradley said, "so we've just got to come ready to play. We've got to be prepared every night."
North Clayton girls 45, Stockbridge 38
Frustration almost set in during the closing moments of the game Friday night. North Clayton had won five straight in January but was without coach Kimleon Turner on the bench and struggling against an opponent mired in a six-game losing streak.
It wasn't pretty, but the Lady Eagles (11-11, 7-8 Region 4-AAAA) got enough plays down the stretch from junior forward Miranda Cantrell and junior guard Destiny Tejada to preserve their lead and escape with a win.
The win gave North Clayton its sixth win in its last seven games and kept it near the top of the Region 4-AAAA standings.