(Photos by Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press)
HAMPTON — Cody McClain knocked down a game-winning jumper as Hampton turned the tables on Grace Christian on Tuesday night.
The senior guard hit the game-winner near the top of the key with five seconds left to lift the Bulldogs to a 55-53 victory over the Rams in the Class A boys’ sectional at Van Huss/White Gymnasium.
For McClain and his teammates, they avenged a one-point loss to the Rams at the start of this season and a 71-65 loss to them in last year’s sectional game.
Hampton will take a 29-5 record into next week’s state tournament, while Grace ended its season at 21-9.
“I told coach I wanted it,” McClain said about the last shot. “Luckily by the grace of God, it went in. I had in the back of my mind what happened last year and earlier this year. It’s my last game playing here and I’m blessed to go out like this.”
Hampton coach Ned Smith didn’t hesitate letting McClain pull the trigger, even though he had struggled with his shot most of the night. It was the same with long-range shooter Cheyenne Camillo, who similarly struggled hitting the mark before knocking down a pair of 3-pointers to put Hampton ahead 53-50 with 1:33 left.
“It felt amazing,” Camillo said about hitting the back-to-back shots. “It makes it much sweeter that it came against them. They beat us last year and the start of this year. But, we’re a family. We live together and die together, no matter if we’re down or up.”
Grace Christian coach Matt Mercer commented when Camillo hit the second 3-pointer, it was the loudest gym he had ever been in. He added the teamwork was something he noticed about this year’s Hampton team.
“Earlier in the year, they missed a last-second shot to beat us and we won by one. Tonight, we lose by two,” Mercer said. “Obviously, we’re well matched and have two competitive programs. Hampton’s team last year was talented, but this year was their best team. That’s what I noticed on film. There isn’t one guy who can beat you. There are four or five.”
Coby Jones was that guy for the Bulldogs most of the game.
He led their efforts with 16 points, five rebounds and three assists. He made four timely shots behind the 3-point arc, including one to tie the game near the end of the third quarter.
Jones credited an overflowing crowd and their enthusiasm for giving him and his teammates the energy they needed for the victory.
“Our fans came out ready to cheer and it was something to feel the gym move like that,” Jones said. “When you have all that support, you feel like you can do anything. When Cheyenne hit that second 3-pointer over there, that’s something that will be written down in my memory forever. We knew we had to back each other up and play with our hearts.”
Grace Christian matched its biggest lead of the game (50-45) on a pair of Andrew Byram free throws with 2:53 remaining. From there, Hampton ended the game on a 10-3 run.
“We just kept plugging away staying in it and the kids just battled,” Smith said. “They never quit. Down by five late, Cheyenne made some big shots to finish it up.”
Camillo ended with 10 points and Stanley Valentine also finished with 10 for Hampton.
Neither team was able to gain much of an advantage in the first half.
Grace led 9-7 at the end of one quarter and held its largest lead (24-19) with about three minutes left in the second quarter. The Bulldogs stormed back as the game was tied 26-all at the half. It stayed tight throughout the third quarter with the Rams holding a 39-37 lead at the end of the period.
Mercer said his team wasn’t intimidated playing in front of a standing-room only crowd. Andrew Byram, who missed an off-balance 3-pointer at the buzzer, and Luke Shepherd each scored 10 points to lead the Rams.
“It was an awesome atmosphere, but we embraced it,” Mercer said. “For whatever reason, it seemed the louder the gym, the better our kids played. We would have loved to have been on the other side, but, Hampton made the plays down the stretch. They played extremely well and hit the shots in the last couple of minutes.”
Smith has the distinction of now leading two different schools to the state tournament. He coached Cloudland to three state tournament appearances before moving back to Hampton four years ago.
“Any time you get to go to the state, it feels great,” Smith said. “We’ve been knocking on the door the last two years. These guys, they really earned it. I’m so proud of them.”