Whitmer used a one-two punch to hammer Clay on the road last night.
First the Panthers utilized a flurry of 3-pointers, four in the first quarter and seven in the first half to soften the Eagles. Then they applied a tenacious defense that limited Clay to just 10 first-half points.
The result was a 44-31 knockout that helped Whitmer improve to 13-3 overall and 8-2 in the City League. The victory also punched the Panthers' ticket for a berth in the City League tournament.
"We haven't been [to the City League tournament] in my four years in high school, so that's exciting," said Whitmer's Ryne Smith, who led all scorers with 20 points. "It's a great accomplishment for any team in the City League."
Whitmer set the tone early as Beau Norton hit a pair of 3-pointers and Corey Alexander added a third to give the Panthers a 9-0 lead less than two minutes into the game.
"We noticed that, if you could enter [the ball] at the post and throw it to the back side, there would be some 3s for us," Whitmer coach Bruce Smith said. "I said to my assistants, 'If we could only hit a couple of 3s early to get some confidence,' and we did.
"This has been a very difficult place for us to play through the years. Getting out to a 15-0 lead really relaxed us."
Ryne Smith, who did not start because he was ill much of the week, hit a 3-pointer later in the first quarter as Whitmer eventually led 15-4 at the end of one, then added two more in the second period to help the Panthers lead 24-10 at the break.
While the 3-pointers helped Whitmer build that early lead, it was defensive pressure the Panthers applied to Clay scoring leader Zac Taylor that helped extend the advantage. Taylor, who came into the game averaging 18.1 points per game, had just two at the half.
"If he was within three feet of the [low] block, we doubled down," Ryne Smith said. "If he was outside three feet, we went half-way down. We knew we couldn't stop him, we just needed to contain him. And that's what we did."
Taylor finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds, but the next-highest scorers for Clay were Drew Kuns and Kyle Romstadt with six points apiece. The Eagles made just 5 of 21 shots in the first half (23.8 percent) and 13 of 43 in the game (30.2 percent).
"I think it was a combination of [their defense and our offense]," Clay coach Joe Guerrero said of his team's scoring struggles. "First, you have to give them a lot of credit because they played good defense. They did a good job of denying our guys and did a good job of doubling on Zac.
"We had some good looks that just didn't fall."
The only good news for the Eagles was that, despite their struggles on offense, they scored the first seven points of the third quarter to cut Whitmer's advantage to 24-17 with 4:35 still to play in the quarter.
But the Panthers got a running one-hander in the lane by Jeremy Jones and a 3-pointer from the top of the key by Ryne Smith on their next two possessions. Whitmer also made 11 of 14 free throws in the final quarter, and Clay came no closer than eight the rest of the way.
"When we got it down to seven we were feeling pretty good," Guerrero said. "But then they hit those two baskets on their next possessions and it became a struggle."
The Panthers' Antwan Willis added six points and a game-high 14 rebounds, including five offensive boards.
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