By Brett Hart
Playing in its first-ever state title game, the Clayton girls basketball put together a furious rally to tie Black Hawk 21-21 tie at halftime. But things went south for the Bears in the second half and the Six Rivers-East Conference Champion Warriors emerged from the battle of undefeateds with a 51-36 victory, leaving the two programs exactly where they’ve been in the Coaches Poll state rankings the entire season - Black Hawk at No. 1 and Clayton at No. 2.
“Being one of the two remaining teams of the 128 in Division 5 on Saturday, we were extremely thrilled to bring home a silver ball to our school and community,” said Clayton Coach Kevin Fall.
Black Hawk (28-0), which finished second to Bangor at last year’s state tournament, jumped out to a 6-0 lead and extended it to nine points, 15-6, on a jumper by Natalie Leuzinger with 10 minutes left in the first half.
A minute and a half later, Clayton’s Kiana Fall drained a 3-pointer to begin the Bears’ comeback.
Kennedy Patrick sank another 3-pointer at the 6:30 mark to cut the deficit to 12-17. Isabelle Magnuson picked up a key steal shortly thereafter, which led to a another Patrick 3-pointer which brought the Bears to within two points.
But Leuzinger continued to play the thorn in Clayton’s side as she scored on a couple of layups to keep the Warriors in front.
Continuing with its long-range bombing, Clayton (27-1) received a 3-pointer from Kailey Ketz with just over 2 minutes on the first half clock to bring the score to 19-21 and then tied things up on a layup 37 seconds before intermission.
Clayton sank 4-of-8 attempts from 3-point land in the first half, while draining 57 percent of its field goals. Patrick accounted for seven points (including 2-for-3 shooting from three point range) and four rebounds to lead the Bears in the half. Meanwhile, Leuzinger had already racked up 11 points for the the Warriors.
A pair of Clayton turnovers and fouls in the first 1:27 of the second half allowed Black Hawk to take back the momentum, opening the half with a 7-0 run.
Finally, Alison Leslie broke the ice with a three-point play with 14:26 left in the game, when she was fouled on a made layup.
Ketz made a 3-pointer a minute and a half later to cut the deficit to three points, and Leslie made a layup at the 11:29 mark to keep the Bears within three points. But that’s as close as Clayton would get the rest of the game, however, as Black Hawk went on a 12-2 run over the next five-and-a-half minutes to take a 15-point lead on another Leuzinger layup.
“A big difference in the two halves was - after we handled their run-n-jump press in the first half and didn’t allow them to get easy transition baskets, they really got more physical with us in the half court,” Coach Fall said. “They made it tough to run our offense and get quality shots. As the game progressed with this physicality factor, fatigue also became a factor. We missed some shots we normally make.”
Ketz finished scored eight second-half points to finish with a team-high 13 points. Leslie compiled 11 points, four rebounds and two assists in the game. Patrick led the team in rebounds, with six, and notched nine points and an assists to go with them.
Kiana Fall was the only other Clayton scorer - with three points - and added a team-high three assists, along with three rebounds. Jaedyn Bussewitz contributed three rebounds and three assists. Grace Schradle added two rebounds.
Leuzinger led the Warriors with a game-high 23 points, including 3-for-5 three-point shooting. Her teammate, Bailey Butler, added 19 points to help Black Hawk to its first-ever state title after four previous state tournament appearances (2009, 2010, 2011, 2018).
“Obviously as true competitors, the ultimate dream and goal of an athlete is to be the state champion at the end of the day,” Coach Fall said. “After competing at the state tournament the past four years, the level of competition is extremely high. Your margin for error and earning a victory at the state tournament is extremely small. You must put together a complete game on both the offensive and defensive sides to win. There are no losers in the ball round at the state tournament in my opinion.
“It’s been an honor and a privilege to coach this group of girls. I am extremely proud of this team like everyone from Clayton. They are all great role models on and off the court. This team is a product of our great school and community, and they are all a class act.”