ATHENS — For the first time in 23 years, the Lynchburg-Clay High School boys basketball team will play in the state Final Four.
Sparked by an 8-0 run to start the second half, the Mustangs ran away from Marion Pleasant 68-50 Saturday won win the Div. III Athens Regional championship game at the Convocation Center on the Ohio University campus.
“The journey to where we are now has been great,” said Lynchburg-Clay head coach Matt Carson after the win. “To take a quote from a very wise sage I talked to earlier today, these kids have matured as people, as leaders and as players. You know they’re very humble and gracious winners. They’ve earned this though. It’s not like this magically happened today. They put in all the work in the summer and throughout the season. There were peaks and there were valleys but anytime we hit a low point, we rose above it like tonight. Our bench stepped up when we had a couple of our starters out with four fouls. I’m just extremely proud of all of them.
The Mustangs are now in the state semifinals and will play 10:45 a.m. Thursday at the Ohio State University Jerome Schottenstein Center against Cleveland Villa Angela St. Joseph (21-5).
The last time Lynchburg-Clay went to the Final Four was in 1993.
“These last two weeks have really been a blur,” Carson said. “From one game to the next, there’s just so many people calling and texting wishing us well and this is just surreal right now. Especially the support we’ve gotten from the people that paved the path for us back in 1993. All of those guys have been supportive of us all year and even had a few of them reach out to me as early as last year and say this group could be special. I saw it and it’s all about getting the kids to believe in it and they’ve really taken ownership in it this year and they weren’t going to settle for anything less than where were going right now.”
The Mustangs started the game with a flurry. Joe Giordano put the first two points on the board then Eric McLaughlin, who has picked a good time to get hot for the Mustangs, followed with a three-pointer for a 5-0 lead.
Marion Pleasant finally got into the scoring column with 5:29 to go in the opener. At the end of the first eight minutes, Lynchburg-Clay led 11-9.
The second quarter was a slow one for the Mustangs. The Spartans took the quarter overall outscoring Lynchburg by one point with the help of two three pointers and at halftime, the Mustangs held a 20-19 lead.
“I never felt totally comfortable the whole game just because I knew that [Marion Pleasant] was a well-coached basketball team,” Carson said.
But led by Devin Pierson’s 17-point second half effort, the Mustangs corralled the Spartans and put the finishing touches on a trip to Columbus.
“I did know that the tone was set when we came out and scored on our first seven possessions of the third quarter. I knew after that, that we were fine,” Carson said. “I think we were a little tight in the first half. After we got over that, we came out in the second half and executed a lot better and got the looks we wanted. Our defense was solid and has been in all six of our tournament games. I think we’re giving up less than a 50-point average and in the tournament, that’s going to get it done most nights. Credit the kids for all the effort. It’s just phenomenal.”
Giordano had 12 in the second half and Eric McLaughlin scored 10 of his 21 in the third and fourth quarters. The 8-0 run gave LCHS a 30-21 lead. McLaughlin then turned defender with an emphatic blocked shot that led to another basket by Giordano. Pierson tossed in a couple free throws at 4:49 to make it 34-21 Mustangs.
The Spartans closed the third with a run but still trailed 40-33 going to the final quarter.
Marion Pleasant was never able to challenge Lynchburg-Clay in the fourth. The Mustangs were solid at the free throw line and continued to play stellar defense.
The game was capped off when the Mustangs stole the basketball and Morgan Ryan made the final points on a layup with 20 seconds left to bring home the 18-point victory.
“Last year we got put out in the first game of the tournament and I was just searching for something for us before the season started that the kids could kind of latch onto,” Carson said. “Oddly enough, I emailed Western Michigan’s football coach P.J. Fleck who, as a Division I football coach, took the time out of his day to email me back. I read this article about him and it was so motivating that within five minutes of reading it, I wanted to play football for him. We adopted that saying and it’s something that we’ve gradually bought into all year. You’ve got to keep rowing. You might see the destination at the end, there might be tidal waves and the boat might get holes in it, but you’ve just got to grab your fair share and keep rowing and the kids did that all year and we’ve rowed our way to the Final Four.”
McLaughlin finished with 21 points and 13 rebounds while Zach Blankenship scored 12 points and pulled down 10 rebounds.
March 12, 2016
@Ohio Univ. Convocation Center
Lynchburg-Clay 68 Marion Pleasant 50
(68) LYNCHBURG-CLAY (fg-3fg-ftm/fta-tp) McLaughlin 6-2-7/12-21, Pierson 3-1-10/12-17; Giordano 4-2-4/8-14, Blankenship 3-0-6/7-12, Mullins 0-0-2/2-2, Ryan 1-0-0-2. TOTALS 17-5-29/41-68
(50 MARION PLEASANT (fg-3fg-ftm-fta-tp) J. Craycraft 6-4-3/4-19, Sansota 6-0-7/12-19, H. Craycraft 2-1-0-5, Marvin 1-1-0-3, Joehlin 1-0-0-2, Wood 1-0-0/1-2. TOTALS 17-6-10/17-50
Reach Robert Stegbauer at 937-393-3456 ext. 1679 or on Twitter @RStegbauer.