A slow start spelled doom for the Middlesboro Yellow Jackets on Friday as Clay County jumped out to a 19-2 lead and went to a 78-53 win.
“Anytime you get out to a 17-point deficit it’s hard to overcome that,” said MHS coach Russell Thompson. “I don’t know if it was because of all the distractions or what, but we’re a better team than what we showed tonight.”
MHS celebrated homecoming and Senior Night and all of the festivities may have caused the Jackets to lose their focus on the task at hand. The Tigers’ active 2-3 match-up zone and a 2-1-2 fullcourt press were also a big factor in Clay’s early surge.
Middlesboro missed their first nine shots from the field and were forced into seven turnovers during the first quarter.
Two free throws from senior Derek Smith tied the game two just over a minute in, but the Tigers scored the next 17 points to take control of the game. Kody Reed scored six points during the run and Stephon Lyttle added four with Tyler McDaniel connecting on a 3-pointer.
“They played a 2-3 matchup zone and executed it very well. We knew they were going to that and we prepared for it,” Thompson said. “In the tournaments anything can happen, but right now Clay is playing as good as anyone we’ve seen all year. Their guard play is just great, they were able to break us down and get into the paint. Their bigs, whenever they had an opportunity they finished. That’s a credit to them and to their coaching staff for getting them ready because they seem to be peaking at the right time.”
Jacket senior forward Zach Riddle scored on a nice little feed from Smith for Middlesboro’s first basket with just 34 seconds left in the quarter. Lyttle answered at the other end and it was 21-4 after one.
Junior guard Donnie Foister scored six points in the second quarter, Austin Poindexter added five and Riddle four but the Jackets were never able to get closer than 14 points the rest of the way. Clay got four points each from Lyttle and Marty Bowling in the period and held a 35-19 lead at the half.
Any hopes of a second half comeback were dashed by McDaniel, who hit three 3-pointers in the third quarter. Poindexter scored 12 of his game-high 22 points in the third for Middlesboro, but the Tigers continued to pull away. It was 59-37 after three and Clay went on to win by 25.
It was the 10th straight win for the Tigers as they close the regular season with a record of 21-6. They were led by McDaniel with 19 points while Lyttle added 17 and Reed 12.
For Middlesboro, Poindexter was joined in double-figures by Foister with 12 points and Riddle with 11.
Both teams will open district tournament play next week with Clay County playing the winner of Monday’s Oneida Baptist-Red Bird game on Wednesday in the 49th District semifinals at Jackson County.
Middlesboro (14-12) will face Bell County on Tuesday in the first round of the 52nd District Tournament at Harlan.
Friday’s game was the final home appearance for five Jacket seniors. Smith, Riddle, Michael Wilson, Boone Bowling and Blake Davis.
“We’ve got a good group of seniors and I believe in what they’re capable of doing. Hopefully they’ll show up in the tournament and refuse to lose so we can keep this thing going on,” Thompson said. “I’ve really enjoyed my time coaching them. Derek Smith, Zach Riddle, Michael Wilson, Boone Bowling and Blake Davis, they’ve done great things for our program and we’ve got a chance on Tuesday to extend the season. I hope we can come together and mesh as a team so we can continue.”
— — —
Clay County….21…14…24…19 — 78
Middlesboro….4…15…18…16 — 53
CLAY COUNTY (78): Tyler McDaniel 19, Stephon Lyttle 17, Kody Reed 12, Jarrod Rice 8, Marty Bowling 6, Wes Wolfe 5, Blake Smith 4, Blake Rojas 3, Christian McNeal 2, Travis Mills 2, Ryan Holland 0, Charlie Gabbard 0, Will Sexton 0,
MIDDLESBORO (53): Austin Poindexter 22, Donnie Foister 12, Zach Riddle 11, Derek Smith 2, Michael Wilson 2, Blake Davis 2, Boone Bowling 1, Major Edwards 1, Seth Barton 0, Brandon Hale 0, Matthew Mike 0, Devon Williams 0, Abhishek Singh 0.