MHS gave the Tigers all they wanted for three and a half quarters. The score was tied at 37 at the half and the Jacket held a 54-52 lead with ten seconds left in the third quarter.
“I’ve got to give credit to my guys, they battled hard and I feel like they represented us well,” Jacket coach Russell Thompson said. “They showed the desire and the will to get the win tonight, it’s just that we hit a slump for about two minutes where the shots didn’t fall and Clay had guys step up and hit shots during that time. But it was nip and tuck all the was through.”
Clay County was led by sophomore point guard Tyler McDaniel with 27 points, including an 8-for-8 effort from the free throw line in the fourth quarter. Senior Jarrod Rice finished with 22 points, Stephon Lyttle added 13 and Marty Bowling nine.
Junior guard Donnie Foister led Middlesboro with 22 points while senior Michael Wilson hit five 3-pointers on his way to 19 points and junior Austin Poindexter added nine off the bench.
Lyttle made one of the biggest plays of the game at the end of the third quarter. Foister had just hit a free throw to give Middlesboro that 54-52 lead with 10 seconds to go. McDaniel got down the court and hit a jumper to tie it at the four second mark and then Lyttle made a leaping steal of a hurried inbounds pass and laid the ball in at the buzzer to give the Tigers the lead going into the fourth quarter.
“Stephon kind of struggled there for the first two or three quarters, but he’s a good ball player. I think that play there at the end of the third quarter got him a little bit of confidence,” Clay coach Robert Marcum said. “Marty Bowling battled foul trouble. We didn’t play the best game of basketball we’ve ever played, but we found a way to win it. That’s what you do with a bunch of seniors.”
Wilson hit a free throw early in the fourth to bring Middlesboro with one, but the Jackets missed their next seven shots from the field and Clay eventually took advantage with an 8-0 run.
Lyttle started it with a little jumper over Middlesboro’s Zach Riddle. McDaniel hit two free throws and Kody Reed one before Rice knocked down his third 3-pointer of the night to give the Tigers a 64-55 lead with 4:00 to play.
The Jackets got 3-pointers from Foister and Wilson to close within 66-61 with 3:27 to play. But Lyttle answered with a basket and Middlesboro misfired on threes on their next two possessions. Two more free throws from McDaniel pushed the lead to 71-61 with 2:02 to go and Middlesboro never got closer than eight the rest of the way.
The Tigers (25-6) earn their second straight trip to the regional championship game, they lost in overtime to North Laurel last season. Clay will take on host Harlan County tonight at 7:30 p.m.
“It’s going to be exciting. We had that opportunity last year but just came up two points short in overtime. Sometimes it takes years before you have that opportunity again. I told the boys we’re blessed to have another shot at it,” Marcum said before knowing who his opponent would be. “We’re going to be tired but we can rest for a long time after the game. They’re going to be excited and ready to go.”
Middlesboro closes the season with a record of 16-14, it’s the first time MHS has had consecutive winning seasons since 1983.
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Clay County (82) — Tyler McDaniel 27, Jarrod Rice 22, Stephon Lyttle 13, Marty Bowling 9, Kody Reed 7, Wes Wolfe 2, Blake Rojas 2, Blake Smith 0, Travis Smith 0, Christopher McNeal 0, Ryan Holland 0.
Middlesboro (70) — Donnie Foister 22, Michael Wilson 19, Zach Riddle 6, Derek Smith 4, Boone Bowling 2, Austin Poindexter 9, Blake Davis 6.