- By AARON KENNEDY firstname.lastname@example.org
MICHIGANTOWN – Two old rivals clashed in the one of the oldest holiday tournaments in the state Wednesday.
Immersed in an atmosphere that resembled a sectional title basketball game, the Clinton Prairie Gophers got the upper hand in the final minutes and held on to win their first championship since 2011 in the Clinton Central Holiday Tournament.
“That was a typical Clinton County game between two rival schools,” Clinton Prairie head coach Jeff Henley said. “I thought Clinton Central played so well. I think coach (Fonso) White is doing a great job with those kids. They play hard. They play smart. But, I am equally proud of my kids because we just hung there. Sometimes things didn’t go the way we wanted, and then the last four or five minutes we hit a couple really big shots.
The Gophers came into the game with a 6-1 record – their only loss coming at Class 3A Frankfort in the season opener – and the Bulldogs were 3-5, but none of that mattered as the Clinton County rivals tied six times and traded the lead 12 times.
A putback basket by Axle Brandenburg gave Clinton Central the 12-11 lead at the end of the back-and-forth opening period, and the Bulldogs stayed ahead through the entire second quarter.
At the halftime break, Clinton Central led Prairie, 22-21.
“We want to compete, and we want to show people that we are both mentally tough and physically tough,” White said. “That is the stigma that is placed on these guys from last year – from the 0-24. Everyone comes in and they are like ‘Hey, we are just going to run right over Clinton Central.’ We are trying to change it up a little bit to show that we have that toughness to be competitive in (Class) 1A or against anybody that we play.”
Bulldogs junior Keenan Orr found himself in foul trouble early in the game and had to go to the bench after picking up his fourth with 4 minutes and 43 seconds left in the third quarter. In his absence, senior Tommy Davidson took on more of a scoring role, putting six points up before the end of the period.
“When Keenan went out, we told Tommy, as a senior, he had to step up,” coach White said. “He was trying to step up and help us as best he could. Once we get guys healthy, we will have the extras pieces that we need to sustain these games like this.”
Davidson finished with a game-high 16 points, but he also found himself in foul trouble by the fourth quarter, as did Axle Brandenburg, who finished with 11 points and led the Bulldogs in rebounding.
Taylor Turner, Brandenburg and then Orr fouled out in the final period.
Clinton Prairie had just 13 fouls compared to 23 for the Bulldogs. The disparity became the game’s defining factor in the second half.
Orr sat on the bench for six minutes before reentering early in the fourth quarter. He was matched up with Prairie’s Kale Morris early in the game and held the top shooter for the Gophers to a pair of free throws in the first half. Burdened by foul trouble, the Bulldogs were forced to change that matchup in the second half, and Morris was able to score 12 points in the second half.
“Keenan did a great job on him,” Henley said. “He’s 6-6, and he is athletic. But then, when he picked up a couple fouls, they had to change the matchup. We started going with Kale in the block, and he is pretty hard to handle in there. Then, if you try to double down on him, we have some shooters on the perimeter. We also ran a couple of sets for him, and he hit a big 3 coming off a set we called. They did a nice job (against him).
“What I really like about Kale is that he didn’t get frustrated,” Henley added. “A lot of kids who are the best player on the team or averaging 21 points a game get frustrated if they don’t get them. Kale never showed frustration.”
After the game and before the Gophers hoisted the championship trophy, Morris was recognized as the tournament’s most outstanding player.
“(Morris) was a tough assignment for Keenan,” White said. “They are both good players and probably the top two players in this county. Morris is a great shooter. It’s not like he is lightning quick. He has a shot, and they set him up very well with the screens and everything. He comes off those very well.”
The Bulldogs held the Gophers to 31 points through the first three quarters before giving up 24 in the final frame. White was frustrated to see his team’s energy and hustle translate to more foul calls.
“I felt like the guys came out pretty strong regardless of the foul situation,” White said. “It bothers me to a point when I am told that we are the more aggressive team, and that is why the fouls are the way they are. The referees are in a tough situation, and I won’t harp on them the way a lot of coaches would. But, like I told them, I just want the same respect that they were giving Prairie. They are a top 10 team in Class 1A, but we deserve that same respect. If you look at our schedule, we are not playing any layovers on our schedule. We have to battle every night that we come out.
“My heart goes out to the kids because they worked so hard just to have it slip away from us the way it did,” White added. ‘But, we will bounce back. We have a couple more tough games next week against Taylor and Northwestern.”
Wednesday night’s win was the 200th in the head coaching career of Jeff Henley. Many of those wins came while he was the head coach at Rossville, where Henley must return to face his old team on Jan. 8.
“I coached there for 16 years,” Henley said. “Those kids are smart. They play hard. In know them really well, and it will be a tough game.”