By Dan Angell
For the Herald
As Clinton coach Nick Lawrence brought his boys basketball team over for a timeout in the third quarter of the River Kings' 53-46 win over Pleasant Valley, Clinton senior guard Jalen Jones knew his team couldn't let another winnable game slip away.
After the teams had played the first half to a stalemate, the Spartans had started the half on a 9-2 run, and Jones knew that if he and his teammates didn't step up, Clinton would again fall short against a quality opponent.
This time, the River Kings did exactly what they needed to do — and Jones led them the entire way.
The senior scored 22 of his 28 points in the second half, and the rest of the River Kings backed up his efforts by either getting him the ball or getting to the free-throw line and converting. When it was over, Clinton finally had its signature win, outscoring the Spartans 8-2 over the final two minutes to earn what Lawrence called a tournament-style win Friday night at Pleasant Valley High School
“In my tenure at Clinton, that's the biggest win our program has had,” Lawrence said. “To be able to come back and knock them off is big for us. We got down by seven at one point and our guys didn't quit; they battled back and believed in themselves. They took care of the ball down the stretch, got to the free-throw line and knocked down their free throws.”
Down the stretch, the River Kings (9-4, 6-3 MAC) looked nothing like a team that lacked experience in pressure situations. Instead, Clinton handled both the situation and the Spartans (7-6, 5-4) like champions, sticking to its strategy and keeping its composure regardless of what Pleasant Valley tried.
The most obvious example came at the free-throw line, as Clinton converted 12 of its 14 attempts from the stripe, including its first 10. Only Jones missed, and by that time, the game was far enough out of the Spartans' reach that the misses didn't matter.
“We knew we had to attack the basket, get them in foul trouble and try to get to the line as much as we could,” Jones said. “It's a lot easier to score from the free-throw line than shooting threes.”
When the River Kings weren't attacking the basket, they were creating room for Jones to take over the game. Other than a Derrick Howard drive in the third quarter, Jones had every River King basket, taking advantage of every inch of space the Spartans left him.
His teammates were only too happy to keep feeding him the ball, knowing that the most likely result would be either a basket or a rebound that would lead to a trip to the foul line.
“He's really been a leader for us, making big plays at big times,” said junior Brady Ernst, who had 10 points and went 4-for-4 at the stripe in the final two minutes. “When we need him, he puts the team on his back and carries us to the win.”
None was bigger than this win for the River Kings, who moved into third place in the MAC and potentially gained a critical advantage in the substate playoffs in the process. With the teams in the same Class 4A substate, the River Kings knew that if they were going to break through against a quality foe, this was the game in which to do it.
As Clinton entered its locker room following the game, loud shouts of celebration could be heard through the walls, as the River Kings finally proved to both themselves and the MAC that they could win a big game.
“This is a huge confidence booster,” Jones said. “We knew going in that we were fighting for third in the MAC and third or higher in substate. They're a really good team, and we had to make a stand here.”
CLINTON 53, PLEASANT VALLEY 46
CLINTON (9-4, 6-3) — Zach Pope 1 0-0 2, Jalen Jones 10 6-8 28, Jon Cady 1 3-4 6, Derrick Howard 1 5-6 7, Brady Ernst 2 6-6 10. Totals 15 20-24 53
PLEASANT VALLEY (7-6, 5-4) — Noah Bryant 4 2-2 10, Chase Kipper 1 1-2 3, Will Carius 6 5-8 18, Jeffrey Kardell 3 4-4 11, Carter Milam 2 0-0 4. Totals 16 12-16 46
Clinton 12 7 14 20 — 53
Pleasant Valley 9 10 14 13 — 46
3-point goals — Clinton 3 (Jones 2, Cady); Pleasant Valley 2 (Carius, Kardell).