LEES CREEK – It’s clearly been a frustrating season to date for Tony Berlin’s East Clinton basketball team, winless in seven games.
Whiteoak visited East Clinton Saturday night and claimed a 55-44 victory on the Astros’ home floor.
After seven games, East Clinton is still looking for its first win of the year. With the win, the Wildcats improved their record to 5-2.
Victimized by a slow start, during which they trailed by as many as 16 points, the Astros steadily chipped away at the double-digit deficit, pulling within five points in the final minute before the Wildcats cashed in at the free throw line for the win.
“It’s been that kind of a pattern for us so far,” EC head coach Tony Berlin said. “We dig ourselves a big hole and then we fight back, only to come up short. We have had five games — very winnable ones — if we had only played better at the start.”
In a losing cause, Matt Mitchell was the Astros leading scorer with 14 points, all in the second half. Branson Smith added 12 points, all in the second and third quarter, and Colten Vadnais added eight points.
For the winning Wildcats, Hunter Ruckel was the top scorer with 18, all in the first three quarters, while Zach Rand added 15 points and Devin Cumberland scored eight, including four crucial free throws down the stretch.
Whiteoak jumped out to an 18-4 first quarter lead, and scored the first basket of the second period before East Clinton reeled of 11 unanswered points cutting the margin to 20-15 with 4:30 to play in the half. The Wildcats responded with an 11-2 run, including the final seven points of the period, to make it a 31-22 lead at halftime.
East Clinton came out of the locker room a different squad — thanks to nine points from Mitchell, including a pair of three-pointers, to claim the third quarter, 17-14, cutting the Wildcats lead to 45-39 heading into the fourth period.
Unfortunately, the momentum did not continue in the final period as the Astros went ice cold offensively, and Mitchell accounted for all five EC points scored in the period. East Clinton cut the margin to 49-44 with just over a minute to go in regulation before they were forced to foul, and the Wildcats converted all six of their free throw attempts, to seal the victory.
“The slow start, and that stretch early in the fourth quarter just killed us,” said Berlin.
In close games, missed free throws loom large and this was the case Saturday night. The Astros converted just four of their nine attempts at the line, while Whiteoak converted all six of their chances at the charity stripe.
Berlin is hopeful his squad can put together that much-desired consistent effort before the 2018 portion of the season comes to an end, and yields their first victory of the season.
East Clinton will get that chance Friday night, hosting their backyard rivals the Fairfield Lions.
“They (Fairfield) are very athletic and like to get it up and down the court,” Berlin said. “Coach (Josh) Howland does a nice job with them, and we know they will be a real test for us.
“Still, I am proud of my kids. They play hard and we knew this would be somewhat of a stressful year for us with a lot of youth. The good thing is we’ve got seven games under our belt now and that experience should start paying off.”
December 22, 2018
@East Clinton High School
Whiteoak 55 East Clinton 44
(55) WHITEOAK (2fg-3fg-ft-tp) Butler 0-0-0-0, Cumberland 2-0-4-8, Roberts 1-0-2-0, Bailey 3-0-0-6, Ruckel 6-2-0-18, Carr 1-0-0-2, Rand 6-1-0-15, Yeager 1-0-0-2. Team Totals: 20-3-6-55.
(44) EAST CLINTON (2fg-3fg-ft-tp) B. Smith 4-1-1-12, J. Smith 1-0-0-2, Peterman 0-1-0-3, Neanover 1-1-0-5, Mitchell 2-3-1-14, Vadnais 3-0-2-8. Team Totals: 11-6-4-44
Bill Liermann covers college and high school sports for the News Journal. Follow him on Twitter @lierjet.