On Saturday, March 12 the Lynchburg-Clay Mustangs (25-2) traveled to the Convocation Center on the campus of Ohio University to compete against Marion Pleasant in the regional finals.
Only one other team in the history of Lynchburg-Clay High School has made it to the regional finals and moved on to the Final Four. That was 23 year ago in 1993. That number is now zero as the Mustangs defeated the Marion Pleasant Spartans with a final score of 68-50.
As the Mustangs came out to start the game, one would think that this was just another trip to the Regional finals for them. The Mustangs came out ready to go from the tip scoring the first five points with a two to start from Joe Giordano, and a follow up three pointer from Eric McLaughlin.
McLaughlin has found a perfect time to get hot in the season being towards the top of scoring and rebounding in most of the games this post season. Eric led the Mustangs with 21 points and collected his second double-double in as many games with 13 rebounds. McLaughlin’s wasn’t the only double-double on the night for the Mustangs as Zach Blankenship scored 12 points and pulled down 10 rebounds.
Marion Pleasant finally got into the scoring column with 5:29 to go in the first quarter and were able to get some offense going. At the end of the first eight minutes, it the Mustangs up 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 very slim, one-point lead with the score at 20-19.
In the game on Saturday night, there were a total of four lead changes. Those four lead changes all came in the first half. That’s because the Mustangs came out and turned it on in the second half outscoring Marion 48-31 led by Pierson with 17 second half points, Giordano with 12 and McLaughlin with 10.
The Mustangs scored on each of their first seven possessions of the third quarter, starting the third frame with an 8-0 run with points from Blankenship, Giordano, McLaughlin and Pierson. The Spartans were able to stop the bleeding a little with a score at the 5:56 mark but Blankenship scored another layup on a drive to make it 30-21.
On the Spartans next possession, Eric McLaughlin collected an emphatic blocked shot which led to another basket and score by Giordano, Pierson capped off the small middle of the quarter 6-0 run with two free throws and the Mustangs were up 34-21 with 4:49 to play. The Mustangs and Spartans traded baskets over the next two minutes but the Spartans went on their own run to close the quarter scoring nine unanswered points and at the end of three it was the Lynchburg boys up 40-33.
In the final quarter, it was a scoring frenzy by the Mustangs. They racked up 28 points compared to the Spartans 17 and ended the quarter on a 9-0 run. In the final two minutes alone, the Mustangs scored 16 points to Marion’s nine, Marions all coming off of three pointers trying desperately to close the gap between the two teams.
But Lynchburg was solid at the free throw line, making 79 percent of their free shots. The game was capped off when the Mustangs stole the basketball and Morgan Ryan made the final points of the game on a layup with 20 seconds left to bring home a 68-50 victory. As they say, numbers never lie and the Mustangs made sure that their numbers, not just the score, were better than Marion’s.
On the game as a whole, the Mustangs shot 69 percent from the free throw line, 44 percent from the field, and 30 percent from long range compared to just 55 percent from the line, 27 percent from the field and 24 percent from three point land for the Spartans.
“The journey to where we are now has been great,” Lynchburg-Clay head coach Matt Carson said 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.
“I never felt totally comfortable the whole game just because I knew that [Marion] was a well coached basketball team,” Carson said. “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. I think we were a little tight in the first half and after we got over that and 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.”
The Mustangs are now in the Final Four in Division III and will play on Thursday, March 17 at The Ohio State University Jerome Schottenstein Center at 10:45 a.m. against Cleveland Villa Angela St. Joseph (21-5).
Reach Robert Stegbauer at 937-393-3456 ext. 1679 or on Twitter @RStegbauer.