By Jon Gremmels
Herald Sports Editor
Many basketball coaches and players in Iowa complain about not being allowed to play games during the Christmas holiday break. Clinton boys coach Nick Lawrence counts himself among them.
This year, however, being limited to practice time might have been the best thing for the River Kings.
“This year we kind of limped into break. ... The timing played out fairly well for us,” Lawrence said. “We were able to get back, give the guys a handful of days off to kind of rejuvenate themselves and get back to the basics. We really stressed a lot of fundamentals and conditioning the first couple of days, we got a scrimmage that was definitely beneficial for us. I’m glad things played out the way they did for us.”
The end result certainly went well.
They returned to action Friday night and ended a 36-game losing streak in Mississippi Athletic Conference play, beating Muscatine 68-57 in W.J. Yourd Gymnasium. The last time the River Kings won in MAC play was Feb. 19, 2010, when a Clinton team that went on to play in the state tournament closed the regular season with a 68-61 victory against Davenport North. David Johnson, the standout of that Clinton team and now a starting running back at the University of Northern Iowa, was among the spectators at Friday’s game.
“It feels great,” said Clinton junior Jalen Jones, who led the way with 26 points. “We’ve been together 2 1/2 years and haven’t got a win yet. Today’s finally the day. It feels awesome.”
Clinton (3-6) did beat a MAC opponent — North — earlier this season, but that was at the River City Classic, so it wasn’t a league game.
“I think this one means a little more; it’s a conference game,” said Clinton sophomore Brady Ernst, who finished with 14 points and 15 rebounds.
It also marked the first conference win for Lawrence, who moved up from an assistant coach on that 2009-10 team and had experienced just one win the past two years.
“It’s a good feeling for me, but every win should be,” Lawrence said. “It shouldn’t matter if it’s your first or 800th.
“The people I’m most happy for is these kids. Some of these kids weren’t around when that streak started. Fortunately for me, I was able to be part of that team that went to the state tournament. These kids have to go to school day in and day out, they’re out and about in the community and they hear some of the negativity that surrounds that. Kudos to them for showing up to practice every day and working hard. I know it can be difficult to tune some of that stuff out, but at the end of the day when you step onto the court and the other 10 to 15 guys that are with you all have your back, that’s what’s important. That’s what matters. I’m happy that these kids have something to show for their efforts now.”
The River Kings had the fans feeling positive for a different result from the start. They raced to an 18-2 lead in the first 6 1/2 minutes.
“We knew they were down a couple of guys from last year,” Jones said. “We just had to come out and attack them hard to begin with and get them in a hole. It felt like we were clicking real well. Passes were falling to each other. We got nice open looks under the basket.”
Freshman Derrick Howard started the early onslaught, scoring in the lane just 18 seconds in after Muscatine’s Tyler Sanders had an open lane to the basket off the tip but missed a layup.
Tyler Thacker added a 3-pointer, then Jones assisted on baskets by Howard and Justin Michel and Clinton was up 9-0.
A layup by Luke Rauenbuehler, who led Muscatine (1-6, 0-4) with 13 points, ended that run, but Clinton responded by reeling off nine more in a row. Howard scored again, Jones made a 3-pointer and Ernst scored back-to-back baskets, the first on one of Jones’ seven assists.
“It’s important to get my guys going to get their confidence up,” Jones said. “It comes down to late games if they’re double-teaming me I can pass off and be confident they’re going to knock it down.”
After the horrendous start, Muscatine did make things interesting. The Muskies scored the final five points of the first quarter and opened the second with a 3-pointer to close within 18-10.
When they trimmed the lead to 20-14, Jones responded with a crowd-thrilling dunk, but the Muskies kept coming.
“We expect that; it’s part of basketball,” Lawrence said. “Teams are going to make runs. It’s how you weather the storm and move forward from that, and I thought our guys did a nice job. Each time they came in and made a run, we responded to it. In years past and games past, we probably would have hung our heads a little bit and created more of a problem for ourselves. But, we didn’t. We found a way to knock down open shots, to get stops, to do what we had to do.”
Muscatine closed within 22-21 on a putback by Rauenbuehler, but Ernst answered in kind at the other end. Later in the half, Rauenbuehler cut it to 26-24 and had a chance to make it a one-point game but missed a free throw — part of string in which the Muskies missed 6 of 9 shots from the free-throw line — and Clinton closed the half on a 4-2 run.
The River Kings started the second half much the same as the first, scoring 13 straight points. Once again, Muscatine tried to whittle the lead away, but it was much more difficult. Finally, the Muskies got 53-49 on a 3-pointer by Tyler Lloyd (12 points) with 3:19 remaining.
This time, Ernst had the answer. He scored back-to-back baskets to push the lead to 57-49, and Muscatine didn’t threaten again.
“I was just in the right place at the right time,” Ernst said. “I just put it in. My teammates set me up and I put them down. We grew the lead back.”
And they finished off an opponent, something they hadn’t done the past 2 1/2 years in the MAC when they had the chance.
“Tonight was what I think is a great example of a team win,” Lawrence said. “Every person that stepped into that game had a big play at one point or another, whether it was Rodney Witherspoon coming in and getting a five-second call on defense or Brady Ernst snagging almost every rebound, Jalen knocking down shots, Jon Cady finishing on the break (or) Tyler Thacker knocking down 3s.”
Now, the key is keep things going. The Kings will try to make it a winning streak Tuesday when they play at Davenport West.
“The goal is to not be complacent,” Lawrence said. “It’s one win, and we celebrate that tonight and then we come back tomorrow and we start prepping for West.”
CLINTON 68, MUSCATINE 57
MUSCATINE (1-6, 0-4) — Hutton 2 2-4 8, D. Miller 1 0-0 2, Beatty 2 0-0 5, Kovach 0 2-2 2, Sanders 0 0-0 0, Lloyd 4 2-4 12, Rauenbuehler 6 1-6 13, Minder 2 0-0 6, Lohman 1 0-0 2, A. Miller 2 2-3 7, Hickey 0 0-0 0, Calvert 0 0-0 0. Totals 20 9-19 57.
CLINTON (3-6, 1-4) — Witherspoon 0 0-0 0, T. Thacker 3 0-0 8. Howard 6 0-1 12, Jones 9 6-8 26, Ernst 7 0-0 14, Cady 2 0-0 4, Judd 0 0-2 0, Michel 2 0-0 4. Totals 29 6-11 68.
Muscatine 7 19 9 22 — 57
Clinton 18 22 19 19 — 68
3-point goals — Muscatine 8 (Hutton 2, Lloyd 2, Minder 2, Beatty, A. Miller); Clinton 4 (Jones 2, Thacker 2). Total fouls — Muscatine 17, Clinton 17. Fouled out — None.