By Erik Harris
HOMEWOOD — Clinging to a four-point lead, Clay-Chalkville’s first-year head coach Jeremy Monceaux looked at his starting five and told them, “(Bessemer City) isn’t going to give it to you,” moments before the clock started its fourth quarter countdown.
He was right, but his players listened and grinded out 27 points over the next eight minutes of play to secure a 70-63 win over Class 6A No. 5 Bessemer City in the Saturday opener of the Steel City Invitational at Samford University.
Martin Reed got the hot fourth quarter started for the Cougars with an old-fashioned 3-point play in the paint. Moments later, Edward Leggett found himself buried in the teeth of the Tigers’ defense, but converted a beautiful up-and-under to stretch the lead to 11 with six minutes remaining.
From there, solid free throw shooting carried Clay-Chalkville to victory. The Cougars made 27 of their 37 free throw attempts in the second half.
Things didn’t go quite as smoothly in the first half for Monceaux. The coach took a timeout with 2:06 remaining in the second quarter after Bessemer City’s Derrick Little intercepted a lazy pass and finished with a lay-in on the other side to claim a 30-20 lead.
“Sometimes you can get a little bit edgy when things don’t go your way early but we fought and I thought we showed a lot of toughness,” Monceaux said.
Point guard Hasan Abdullah took over from there, going on a 9-0 run all my himself. He dropped a pair of deep balls before the half, and added another to start the third quarter.
“I was just taking what the defense gave me,” said Abdullah. “I wasn’t trying to force anything. I was open so I shot it. Thanks to my teammates for driving, making the defense collapse and I was just playing my role.”
He later found Leggett for a go-ahead 3-pointer from the baseline with 3:50 remaining in the third.
The Cougars’ lead grew in the fourth, but two Bessemer City guards kept it interesting. Little got a deep 3-pointer to drop with 4:17 remaining to trim the deficit to single digits. Micah Fuller later struck from a similar spot to pull his team even closer, but it wasn’t enough.
Fuller finished with 22 points. Little added 13 of his own.
Clay-Chalkville had three players reach double-digit scoring. Abdullah lead the team with 22, Leggett wasn’t far behind with 17 and Kenneth Cotton made 8-of-11 free throws to finish with 10 points.
“We have heart and we’re going to keep fighting regardless of the refs or us not making shots, just keep fighting through the whole game,” Abdullah said.
The Pete Hanna Center did not welcome No. 6 Clay-Chalkville with open arms later Saturday. A slow start put the Cougars in a deep hole that could not be escaped against Bibb County.
Clay-Chalkville shot only 17 percent from the field in the opening half to trail 30-13 and eventually lost the game 51-44.
“We’re the type of team that likes to get things running and the slow start hit us and killed our momentum,” Leggett said.
The Cougars did spark a 9-0 run in the fourth quarter to pull to within eight, but could never get the big shot to fall.
“We were a little stagnant because of the slow start. Our shot attempts were a little hesitant and we kind of panicked,” Leggett said.
Center Brandon Rutledge made points in the paint difficult for the visitors all evening. His size was unmatched by anyone on the floor and although his numbers weren’t loud, he altered many shots in the win.
Rutledge was one of three Bibb County players to reach double digit scoring. He finished with 12 points, while Maleake Kersh and Rashawn Heard each scored 10.
With a height disadvantage working against it, Clay-Chalkville was forced to go outside to score. The Cougars posted more than half their points from behind the arc.
Leggett and Hasan Abdullah both shot 4-for-12 from deep range. Abdullah went for a game-high 14 points. Leggett dropped 12.
Some would say Cotton made the biggest mark for the Cougars. The senior only scored six points, but four of them came on consecutive steals that he converted into offense in the final quarter.
The transition offense made the game interesting, but Clay-Chalkville could never cut it closer than eight.
Clay-Chalkville finishes up play in the Steel City Invitational on Monday against Midfield at 2:30 p.m. at the Pete Hanna Center.