By Brian Paglia
FORT VALLEY -- The instructions were clear for the North Clayton boys basketball team as Richmond Academy's Christian Nobles went to the foul line with the game tied and 4.9 seconds left. Should Nobles make one, and put the Eagles' quest to return to the Class AAAA semifinals in jeopardy, North Clayton coach Martisse Troup wanted his team to advance the ball past half court and call a timeout. There would be time left for one play to save North Clayton's season.
But Richmond Academy spoiled North Clayton's best laid plans. Three Muskateers defenders pressured Eagles senior guard Jimmy Williams as he pursued half court. By the time he found it, there was only time left for a desperate heave that missed to finish North Clayton's season with a 51-50 defeat at Fort Valley State in the Class AAAA quarterfinals.
North Clayton (26-4) trailed by five with less than two minutes left in the game. Richmond Academy's Tommy Williams emerged in the second half, during which he scored eight of his 11 points, none more compelling than the two that gave the Muskateers a 48-43 advantage.
But the Eagles responded. First with a jumper by Zach Bradley. Then with a three-point play from sophomore Marcus Hunt, who was the only Eagles player to finish in double figures with 15 points. Then with a backdoor layup from Hunt to tie the game at 50.
How Hunt and North Clayton's taller forwards disappeared offensively for much of the game was a product of Richmond Academy's strategy. No entry pass into the post was easy. The Muskateers used enough grit and savvy to get myriad second chance opportunities. At halftime, North Clayton's deep collection of post players had combined for just eight points.
"They outrebounded us at times," Troup said. "Their guards did a great job of denying passes into the lane."
But North Clayton remained resolute. It never trailed by more than six. The teams exchanged the lead 12 times, and North Clayton received a fortuitous 3 in the corner from forward Clarence Jackson to give the Eagles its last lead, ever so briefly, 39-36, late in the third quarter.
"If there was a spot on the floor Jackson could hit a 3," Troup said, "it's in the corner."
Nobles led the Muskateers to its second consecutive semifinals appearance with 14 points and Desmond Lofland added 10 for Richmond Academy, who will play the winner of Lithia Springs/Miller Grove.
North Clayton senior Zach Bradley, who signed with Clayton State, finished the final game of his high school career with five points.
"Zach was rushing his shots and he never got in a good rhythm," Troup said. "But he's going to have a great career at Clayton State."
Williams was North Clayton's next leading scorer after Hunt with nine points, Antwuan Murphy scored eight and Jackson added seven. They were three of North Clayton's six seniors hoping to get North Clayton back to the semifinals for the first time since 2006, a brief hiatus for most programs, but too long by this team's standards.
And yet after the game, there was only next season to await.
"It was a great season," Troup said. "Now it's time to get our unsigned seniors a scholarship. We started offseason conditioning in two weeks, so we'll get back to it."