ON THE RIGHT TRACK

in Boys Basketball/Winter Sports

Without a postseason appearance since 2005, the Clifton Cubs begin the second round of District 17-3A play on the brink

CLIFTON — Just when it began to feel so close, it became so far away once again. But for the Class 3A Clifton Cub boys basketball team, their quest to earn the school’s first playoff berth in 17 seasons still  remains very much in play. In fact, as the Cubs head into the home stretch of the 2021-22 Texas high school basketball regular season, Clifton maintains a firm grip on its own postseason destiny.

But the hard part begins now.

Despite being on the verge of claiming a share of the District 17-3A lead last week, the Cubs suffered back-to-back losses to close out the first round of league play falling into tie for fourth place — the final playoff spot.

As a result, Clifton (4-3 in district, 17-6 overall) finds itself in an almost must-win scenario as the Cubs open the second round by hosting the McGregor Bulldogs (4-3, 11-16) at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Clifton High School Gymnasium. Despite going into the showdown tied for fourth place, the Bulldogs — riding a two-game win streak — own the tiebreaker by virtue of their 48-42 victory over Clifton to open district competition Dec. 31.

Despite trailing by 15 points with 4:18 remaining in the third period, the Cubs rallied against the 12th-ranked Lorena Leopards before coming up short in a disappointing 49-44 home loss last Tuesday. Although Clifton trailed the entire game after a 9-9 tie in the first quarter, the Cubs made it a three-point game with 4.37 seconds remaining. But the Leopards (7-0, 13-13) sank both ends of a one-and-one to secure the win.

After a slow start, senior Seth Payne got hot to finish with a team-highs of 23 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and six steals. Senior Griffin Phillips tossed in 12 points, while senior Robert Goodman pulled down five rebounds, dished out three assists and added four points.

Attempting to bounce back on the road last Friday, the Cubs jumped out to an early 12-10 first quarter lead against Whitney. But the Wildcats (5-2, 15-9) rallied to take a three-point lead at halftime and secured the win in the second half behind the game-high 25-point effort from junior Cade Baker.

Matching his season-high in the losing cause, Phillips tossed in 23 points and pulled down 13 rebounds, followed by Payne with 19 points, eight boards and three steals, while senior Jorge Rodriguez dished out four assists.

Before the current two-game skid, the Cubs extended their win streak to four straight by knocking off West, 49-34, to move into sole possession of second place behind Lorena. After battling to a slim 14-13 lead in the first quarter, the Cubs went on a 10-2 run in the second period and continued to attack the Trojans (5-2, 13-8) in the second half to secure the win.

“Beating West was a big win for us and put us in good position to make a run at a playoff spot,” Clifton boys basketball head coach Tom Daniel said. “We did a great job defensively, and we held their top scorer to only three points. It was a good team effort, the kind of effort we need to continue winning against good teams.”

Payne scored a game-high 21 points, pulled down 16 rebounds and dished out four assists, followed by sophomore Bradin Yates with 12 points and seven rebounds, as well as Phillips with 10 points and nine rebounds. Payne sank 10 of 13 shots from the field while sophomore Andres Devora dished out four assists.

Prior to the big win, the Cubs took care of business by jumping out to a commanding 20-point first period lead against Waco Harmony School of Innovation (0-7, 0-11) and never looked back as Clifton posted an overwhelming 74-11 victory Jan. 11.

Payne poured in a game-high 24 points while hitting 11 of 13 shots from the field, followed by Phillips with 16 points and a team-high seven rebounds, while Goodman scored 10 points and dished out five assists. Getting involved in all aspects of the game, Payne pulled down six rebounds, served up five assists and came up with three steals.

Following the crucial matchup with McGregor this Tuesday night, the Cubs get back-to-back home games when they host the Riesel Indians (1-6, 10-11) at 7:30 p.m. Friday before hitting the road to take on the Troy Trojans (2-5, 13-13) Feb. 1.

“We have to protect our home court,” Daniel said after the Cubs knocked off Troy, 62-43, at home in the first round of district. “We just need to keep playing with energy on defense, and then execute on offense. With all five guys working together and high energy on the bench, I know good things will happen.

“Making the playoffs is the goal, and we have six seniors who are great kids that work hard every day. I think they are on the right track.”

Photos by SIMONE WICHERS-VOSS

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