By Jon Gremmels Herald Sports Editor
The Clinton Herald
---- — CLINTON — Top-notch teams don’t need much of an opening to take control of a game.
While Clinton stood toe-to-toe with third-ranked Dubuque Senior for much of the game Tuesday night, the Rams seized their opportunity late in the first half and handed the River Kings their first loss of the boys basketball season, 61-56 at W.J. Yourd Gymnasium.
Even in the loss, the River Kings proved something to themselves.
“It just proves how good we can be,” Clinton senior Jalen Jones said. “We have a lot of talent, and I think we can make it to the state tournament this year.”
Playing at the that level is something the Rams know about. Using an experienced lineup from a team that lost just twice last season and placed third in the state tournament, Senior closed the first half on an 18-7 run from which Clinton never completely recovered.
“The run was huge; it basically got us the win because they had a little run in the second half and we had a comfortable margin,” Rams 6-foot-7 senior guard Kyle Haber, who led all players with 24 points, said.
The Rams, whose starting lineup includes three future Division I basketball players and a University of Iowa football recruit — each 6-5 or taller — took advantage of their size advantage and rebounding tenacity, often getting multiple chances to score on a single possession.
“That’s our goal every night, to outrebound our opponent by 10 and 12 rebounds just on the offensive end because we have the height to do it,” Haber said. “If we keep crashing the boards hard, we can get extra possessions, and that will only help us.”
The River Kings said that was the difference in the game.
“They did a really good job of working hard and crashing the glass,” said Clinton 6-8 junior Brady Ernst, who scored 12 points but was in foul trouble much of the game. “We ... do a better job of keeping them off the glass and we come out with a win.”
The teams were tied at 10 after one quarter, and Clinton pulled even again with 6:01 left in the first half when Jones (18 points) passed ahead to Jon Cady (11) for a fast-break layup
Haber, who is headed to Brown University, put Senior (2-0) ahead to stay when his 3-point basket snapped a 14-14 tie with about 5 1/2 minutes left in the second quarter. Jones scored from the wing to bring Clinton within one, but 6-5 all-state football player Lucas Legrand made a pair of free throws with 5:10 left, then scored on a power move inside about a half-minute later to push the lead to five.
Two free throws by Zach Pope made it 21-18, but Legrand scored on a drive, then Haber did the same thing and added a free throw to give Senior a 26-18 lead.
A three-point play by Cady cut the deficit to 26-21 with 1:57 left, but the rest of the half didn’t go well.
First, Haber drove the lane and tossed in a basket for a 28-21 lead with 1:44 left. Senior attacked the offensive glass on its next possession, and it paid off with a basket by Sam Noel. Seconds later, Parker Hammel stole the ball in the backcourt and made a layup to stretch the lead to double digits, 32-21.
The breaks continued to go against the Kings when Thomas Smith missed an open shot underneath, and Clinton went to the locker room at halftime trailing by 11.
“You try and limit that, but it’s going to happen in the game of basketball,” Clinton coach Nick Lawrence said of Senior’s surge,” but I was proud of the way our guys responded. We were down 11 at the half and it would have been real easy for our guys to come out and kind of take a step back in the second half. But, we didn’t. We went the opposite direction and fought our tails off. I’m really pleased with how we responded to their run.”
Senior increased its lead to 13 in the third quarter, 40-27, when Jayden Davis scored on a back-door cut and pushed it to 42-27 when Noel scored inside with 2:16 left.
The River Kings refused to let Senior leave with an easy win, however. Derrick Howard (11 points) made back-to-back baskets to start a 6-0 closing run in the quarter, and Clinton pulled within 42-38 with 5:43 remaining on a Cady free throw.
“We had high intensity in the first half, but we had to ramp it up even more in the second half,” Jones said. “Brady was in foul trouble, so I knew I had to come in and provide what I do, plus what he does.”
Jones stuck in a 3-pointer to get Clinton within 49-46 with 2:35 left, then he buried a baseline jumper to cut the gap to 49-48 with 2:07 left.
But a 3-point basket by Noel made it a two-possession game for the Rams, and they sealed the win by making their final nine points from the free-throw line.
“That’s a great win,” Haber said. “They’re a lot better than the last few years; they’ve got a good program this year.”
Despite the loss, Jones and Ernst said by playing Senior close, it should help the Kings on Friday when fourth-ranked North Scott visits Yourd.
“It gives us a lot of confidence that we can play with the best teams in the state, and we’ve got another one coming here Friday night,” Ernst said.
“We have a lot of confidence going into Friday’s game,” Jones said. “We know they (Senior) are a top team in the state and North Scott is also a top team in the state.”
DUBUQUE SENIOR 61, CLINTON 56
SENIOR (2-0) — Keaton Hermsen 0 0-0 0, Sam Noel 3 1-2 8, Parker Hammel 1 2-4 4, Kyle Haber 7 9-10 24, Jayden Davis 1 0-0 2, Luke McDonnell 2 2-2 6, Seth Bonifas 2 1-4 5, Lucas Legrand 5 2-2 12. Totals 21 17-24 61.
CLINTON (3-1) — Robbie Thacker 0 0-0 0, Zach Pope 1 2-2 4, Jalen Jones 4 9-10 18, Jon Cady 4 2-3 11, Ashley 0 0-0 0, Derrick Howard 5 1-1 11, Thomas Smith 0 0-0 0, Brady Ernst 4 4-4 12. Totals 18 18-20 56.
Senior 10 22 10 19 — 61
Clinton 10 11 12 23 — 56
3-point goals — Senior 2 (Noel, Haber); Clinton 2 (J. Jones, Cady). Total fouls — Senior 17, Clinton 18. Fouled out — McDonnell, J. Jones.