Kelvin Clay's performance once the District 6-AA high school basketball tournament moved to East Hamilton looked like that of someone whose career is about to come to an end. As a side note, Samford University's football team is getting a pretty good basketball player next school year.
Clay followed his 28 points in a semifinal with 26 points Tuesday, and his Red Bank team earned the championship by defeating Brainerd 69-56.
Red Bank (24-7) will host Polk County and Brainerd (16-14) will host Sweetwater in Region 3 quarterifinals Saturday at 7 p.m.
The Lions came in having not won the district regular-season title. They were the tournament's No. 2-seeded team.
"It made us hungry. The top spot should've been ours, but it was taken by a rival," Clay said of top-seeded Howard, which Brainerd edged 49-47 in a semifinal. "We wanted to prove to Chattanooga we're still the team to beat. Now we're in a positive mood coming out of this with a win. It gives us something to hold onto."
Clay's first points of the night came on a dunk 2:57 into the game, but those were his only points in a first quarter that ended with the Panthers leading 16-12. Then the Samford-bound all-state wide receiver went to work at his secondary craft.
"Let's hope it continues," Red Bank coach John Cherne said of Clay's recent play. "He's played to his potential. I think there was a lot of focus on Nick, and he took some advantage of that."
Nick Ross is the Lions' leading scorer on the season and despite extra attention from Brainerd defenders managed to score 20 points.
The Panthers had a 31-23 lead late in the first half after Damon Warren made one of his four 3-point goals. Then Red Bank managed to rally in the last 1:37 and tie the score at 31 going to halftime.
Clay made a free throw with 5.1 seconds left and Ross intercepted the inbound pass. Although he missed a short bank shot, Clay was there for the follow before the horn sounded.
The Lions then began the third quarter with a 9-2 run.
"I think some of that momentum ended up carrying over," Cherne said. "Especially in the playoffs, that sort of thing can happen. I thought we executed some sets better in the second half and rebounded better. Our defensive intensity picked up."
Cherne also praised the play of T.J. Butts, who scored his 11 points in the second half.
Darrius Higgins had a 10-point first quarter and finished with 17 for Brainerd. Warren totaled 16 points and Jalen Stallion had eight of his 10 in the final 6:50.
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.