The Lynchburg-Clay Mustangs (23-2) walked into the Convocation Center on the Ohio University campus in Athens, Ohio on Wednesday night looking for a chance to play in the regional finals and be one of the elite eight in the state. They also came in undefeated in overtime appearances this season. When the Mustangs walked out they were still undefeated and will now get a chance to play for a regional championship Saturday after defeating Chesapeake (19-6) 53-48 in overtime.
So far this tournament season, the Mustangs have had a habit of starting a little slow in the first half and digging themselves a hole but then coming out and putting on a show in the second half and overtaking their opponents and winning by decent margins. On Wednesday night, the opposite happened. The Lynchburg-Clay squad, hot off their win over Fairland, came out on a roll. The Mustangs started the game on the right foot when Zach Blankenship drove to the basket to put up the shot and was fouled, The basket found its way through the hoop and Blankenship finished off the old fashioned three point play by finding nothing but net with the extra free throw. The Mustangs and Chesapeake Panthers went back and forth in the quarter but the Mustangs found themselves on top after the first eight minutes with a score of 11-7.
In the second quarter, the Mustangs added one point to their lead, with threes from both River Mullins and Eric McLaughlin, McLaughlin being the Mustangs leading scorer on the night with 16 points, to take a 25-20 lead into the half.
As the second half began, Lynchburg started right where it left off as the third was opened with a three pointer from McLaughlin and followed up on the Mustangs next possession with another three from Devin Pierson. This allowed the Mustangs to jump out to an 11 point lead, their largest of the game, at 31-20. With one minute remaining in the third, the Panthers shifted the momentum just a bit, going on a 5-0 run to tighten the gap back to six points. The Lynchburg team tried for one more basket before the quarter ended, but a three fell short and it looked as if the game would stay at the six point spread, but Brandon Storer grabbed the miss and put up a jump shot as time expired that found the bottom of the net and counted, making it 39-31 going into the final frame.
In the fourth quarter, the Panthers started off by making a two pointer but was followed up by three straight from the Devin Pierson by way of a layup and making one of two free throws on a foul. Chesapeake then went on an 8-0 run with two threes and a layup to bring the game to 42-41. McLaughlin made a shot with 4:23 left in the game to increase the lead to three but with 2:11 left, the Panthers made one last three pointer to tie the game at 44. In the final 2:11, neither team scored. However, Lynchburg’s collective fan base was given a scare by the Panthers in the final moments. With just seconds on the clock, the Panthers took the ball out of bounds and looked for an open man. A player shot down the floor towards the basket and was wide open for the pass and shoot. He went up for the layup but Eric McLaughlin was right behind him as the shot went up and got just a fingertip on the ball as it went. Fortunately, that was all it took as the ball rolled out on the other side and Lynchburg got the rebound. The Mustangs tried for one last hurried shot before the buzzer but were unsuccessful and the game went into overtime, something that was very familiar to the Mustangs.
As the extra period started, the Mustangs did not have a look of panic in their eyes, but one of confidence. The Mustangs had been in that situation before and had always came out on top. Just another overtime in just another game. The Panthers started the quarter with a layup and score to take a 46-44 lead, which was quickly erased as Joe Giordano made a three from the corner to give the Mustangs the 47-46 edge. That was the last time the Lynchburg team lost the lead. Pierson scored a layup on the Mustangs’ next possession to make it 49-46 but Chesapeake came back to within one with two free throws with 1:05 to play. All the while, the Mustangs were making it difficult for their opponents to get an open look as time ticked away. With 38 seconds to go, Blankenship made both shots in a one-and-one opportunity giving the Mustangs a 51-48 lead. A lead, but close enough for the Panthers to tie with a three pointer. The Mustangs locked it down on defense in the final seconds and with six seconds to go, Eric McLaughlin put the proverbial nail in the coffin with two more points from the charity stripe to give the Mustangs the win at 53-48 in the overtime contest.
“We made plays when we had to tonight,” said Lynchburg-Clay Head Coach Matt Carson after the regional semi final win. “That’s the thing about this level. You can say you have to execute and do this and do that but we just made plays when we had to. What do you say about these kids? This is like the fifth overtime game. We’ve been in that territory this year and none of these guys flinched.
“It’s little things like Storer with that offensive rebound and and put back at the end of the third quarter. It was his only two points of the game but those are two huge points right there. It’s Josh Ahrmann taking a charge. And it’s Eric McLaughlin saving a basketball in that overtime and throwing it back in. I told the radio tonight that Eric expects a lot of himself and I do as well. I’ve kinda gotten on to him a little bit in the last few weeks but he’s a competitor. He came to play from start to finish tonight. Played a physical game and banged around there with those kids. I’m extremely proud of him. He played a heck of a basketball game tonight.
“All these guys are competitors. We’re in uncharted territories. It’s these kids’ first time in a regional game as well as the staff’s, but we executed. Give credit to Chesapeake. [Gage Rhoades] may be one of the grittiest basketball players I’ve ever seen. He willed his team back into that basketball game whether he was scoring or passing. He’s a good basketball player.
“It hasn’t really hit us yet getting to the Elite 8. I think it’ll sink in when we go home at some point in time. I’m extremely proud of these kids and I can’t say that enough. This community getting behind us; we sold out of all of our presale tickets for this game. They were out here in full force. You could hear them out here. Mustangs nation is great. Highland County getting behind us, the league getting behind us is what high school sports are all about. We want to come back here on Saturday and be a good representation of our league, our county and our community. We’re going to everything we can to advance.”
McLaughlin led the Mustangs with 16 points and also grabbed 10 rebounds which gave him a double-double on the night.
The Mustangs will play again at a time to be announced (either 3 or 7 p.m.) against Marion Pleasent (16-11) on Saturday, March 12 back at the Convocation Center in Athens.
The Lynchburg-Clay Athletic Department will be selling tickets for the boys regional final basketball game on Friday during school hours (7:30-2:30) at the high school and from 6:00-8:00 both evenings at the high school. They will also be selling tickets from 9:00-12:00 on Saturday morning at the LC elementary.
LCHS – 11 14 14 5 9 – 53
CHS – 7 13 11 13 4 – 48
Lynchburg-Clay: McLaughlin 3(2) 4/4 – 16; Pierson 4(1) 2/5 – 13; Giordano 3(1) 0/1 – 9; Mullins 2(1) – 7; Blankenship 1 4/5 – 6; Storer 1 – 2. Total: 14(5_ 10/15 – 53
Chesapeake: Rhoades 8(2) 3/4 – 25; Stevens 2(2) – 10; Medows 3 1/2 – 7; Stephens 1 2/2 – 4; Webb 2/2 – 2. Totals: 14(4) 8/10 – 48.
Reach Robert Stegbauer at 937-393-3456 ext. 1679 or on Twitter @RStegbauer.