By THOMAS P. WEAVER, HORIZON Editor
WATERTOWN-The Clay County Bulldogs’ hopes of making a run to the State Tournament were dashed here last Thursday night as Clarkrange ended the team’s season in the Region 4A semi-finals by a score of 36-32.
Despite beating them twice in the regular season, poor shooting did the Dawgs in as the third time was the charm for the Buffaloes.
“We picked a bad time to shoot that poorly,” head coach Rob Edwards said of the team’s uncharacteristic 29% field goal percentage in the loss. “Watching the film, there wasn’t much there except we couldn’t make shots.
“Most of the time when you hold a team to less than 40 points, you win, but that wasn’t the case,” the coach continued. “I don’t know how you explain it–it wasn’t like we were way off either. A lot of them were in-and-out.
“We ran offensive sets and got the shots we expected to get, we just missed–it’s frustrating to have a team like this and watch them give everything they had and come up short, but that’s what happened. In the postseason, you’ve got to have the ball bounce your way to win and we weren’t that fortunate.”
Edwards said despite getting knocked out of the postseason earlier than they had hoped, his senior-led team had nothing to be ashamed of.
“This team was the regular season conference champs and won the District (7A) tournament,” Edwards said. “I told them after the game that would be a heck of a year for most teams and that a lot of people would like to be sitting here in their shoes.
“These guys have won over 20 games for four consecutive years and been to the State Tournament. They’ve worked hard and got to experience a lot. I told them to be proud of what they’ve accomplished–because it’s something to be proud of.”
The end of the season closed the books on the careers of seniors Corey Hamilton, Jake Edwards, Austin Cherry, Dylan Carter, and Eddie Roach–a group Edwards said he “got to know like his own kids” because he coached them for six straight years through junior high and high school.
“They are one of the most favorite groups I’ve ever had,” he said. “They gave it their all and they are a good bunch of kids.
“We only had one technical foul called on us all year–I think that says a lot about this group.”
Hamilton became the team’s floor leader running the show at the point guard position and he put up a lion’s share of Clay County’s scoring down the stretch.
“He made some big shots when we had to have them and led us in scoring in the postseason,” Edwards said, “but what was so impressive about Corey was his unyielding intensity on both ends of the floor.
“It forced everybody to try to keep it up with him and made our whole team better.”
The coach explained Hamilton “only had one gear” and described his energy as second to none.
Edwards, who is the coach’s son, was described by his father as very versatile and the team’s clutch shooter.
“Jake’s had to endure a little bit more pressure being my son and I think he’s done well despite that,” coach Edwards said. “He always seemed to make a big shot or two at crucial times and he’s had to play just about every position on the floor when we needed him to.
“It’s nice when you have a player you can depend on to play almost any role you need.”
Edwards stepped up as the team’s lone shooter when fellow senior shooting guard Cherry was out with injury in the postseason and he was second in blocked shots.
Cherry, who coach Edwards described as a “pure shooter,” was the team’s biggest three-point threat, before Edwards took over that distinction in the postseason.
“Austin has a lot of desire to play,” coach Edwards explained. “The game meant a lot to him and he was our go to guy early in the year before teams figured out they needed to concentrate on him.
“He got off to a great start scoring 20-plus then, but anytime you do that the opponent is going to key on you.”
Carter saw the same success later in the year as he found his groove as an inside force after Christmas.
“He’s probably one of the top two post players I’ve ever had,” Edwards said, “and he’s a good kid–he did everything I’ve ever asked of him.
“He went off for 27 or so around the holidays and realized the potential he had and it went from there. He got aggressive and really made a difference for us late in the season.”
Roach was the team’s constant. His defensive versatility and timely scoring kept the team in games all year.
“Eddie came up big at times on the offensive end with timely baskets, but his ability to guard just about anybody on the floor was big for us,” Edwards explained. “We had to move him around a lot and he adjusted well.
“Every one of these guys has scored 20 points this year at some time,” the coach continued. “Anytime you’ve got five starters who can do that on any given night, you’ve got a good team.
“All of these guys are going to be missed–they meant a lot to me and this team–I’m proud of them.”
The seniors’ final game started slow as the first quarter ended with the Bulldogs clinging to a one-point lead after Carter scored and made the “and-one” before period’s end.
Those three points would be the final ones Clay County scored in the ensuing eight minutes of the ballgame as Clarkrange went on an 8-0 run to take a seven-point lead with just over two minutes to play in the half.
Hamilton ended the scoring drought with the Bulldogs’ only points of the quarter at the 1:17-mark and they went into halftime down 13-8.
“I told them to remain positive and keep their composure at the half,” Edwards said. “I said we would get the same shots in the second half, but we were going to make them.
“Shooting that bad and only being down five, I told them we would be alright if we could keep our composure.”
The Dawgs did just that early as Carter found the basket to open the quarter, Hamilton turned a steal into a layup, and Edwards nailed a big trey near the three-minute mark to cut the margin to a basket (17-15), but the tide turned as soon as it came in for Clay County.
A non-call on a Clarkrange offensive foul left a Buffalo shooter standing all alone behind the arc for what seemed like an eternity as Hamilton was knocked from the three-point line into the paint. After making the uncontested shot as Edwards and the Clay County crowd expressed their frustration with the officials, the Buffaloes began another run.
Clarkrange scored seven unanswered and took a 24-15 lead into the fourth frame.
They extended that margin to 11 and immediately answered scores by Carter and J.R. Fraga early in the quarter to maintain the lead, until another bomb by Edwards found its mark with 3:30 to go to cut the advantage to seven.
The Bulldogs proceeded to force Clarkrange to cough up the ball on multilple possessions, but their shots didn’t find the basket until Hamilton nailed the first of three consecutive from distance with just under two minutest to play.
The first pulled his team within five and after a pair of made Buffalo free throws, the second three-pointer brought the score to 33-29 with 46.8 seconds remaining.
An Edwards timeout followed and as he came out of the break, you could see the intensity in Hamilton’s eyes.
He picked the pocket of a Buffalo and unleashed another from distance under direst. It missed the mark and again no whistle was heard forcing the Dawgs to foul.
Clarkrange missed the front end of a one-and-one opportunity, but Clay County again came up empty handed as another shot missed its mark. Another forced foul led to one of two made from the charity stripe by Clarkrange leaving the score 34-29 with 18 seconds to go.
Hamilton then completed his trifecta on the ensuing possession cutting the score to 34-32 with under 10 seconds left.
After a double make from the line by the Buffaloes with eight seconds to play the game became a two-possession contest and two desparation Bulldog heaves ended their season with the four-point loss.
DAWGS (32)-Hamilton 13, Carter 9, Edwards 6, Roach 2, Fraga 2.