WARTBURG — It was a far cry from their first meeting this season. Wartburg Central faced a different Hampton.
The gutsy Bulldogs of Hampton fought back from double-digit deficits twice, but didn’t have enough steam by the end of a 69-63 loss to Wartburg Central’s Bulldogs in Monday’s TSSAA Class A substate tilt at Dallas Reed Davis Gymnasium.
Cody McClain scored a game-high 30 points, while Johnny Fields added 12 for Hampton, which, after tying the game at 46 all at the end of three, turned an early 11-point, fourth-quarter deficit into a two possession game before running out of time with a berth in Murfreesboro at stake.
“I’m proud of our kids,” said Hampton coach Ned Smith. “We kept battling. We got down in the first half, and the kids battled back. We got down again and the kids kept battling back, but we never could get over the hump.
“Cody McClain played a heck of a game. Johnny Fields played huge. I thought our kids played with a lot of heart on the road. I’m proud of our kids. They battled to the end.”
Wartburg Central, which defeated Hampton 69-53 earlier in the season, had strong performances from its big men inside and finished with four players in the double-figures.
But even despite the efforts of senior Brad Richardson (20 points) and Class A Mr. Basketball finalist Alex Fountain (18 points), the Wartburg Bulldogs had no answer for McClain, who made his case as the best player on the floor.
The guard picked apart the Ensor-like Wartburg press and went to the line eight times after drawing fouls working toward the bucket. He made four treys from the field and was 14-of-17 from the stripe on the night.
“He played huge,” Smith said of the junior guard. “He handled the ball all night and played his heart out.”
McClain keyed Hampton’s position in the game from the first quarter, which was a tug-of-war between the two squads.
Wartburg struck first behind the Division-I prospect Fountain, but Wesley Murray battled back to give Hampton its first lead of the night.
Treys from Richardson and Austin Langley (12 points) returned the advantage to Wartburg, however, with a lead of as much as four.
A three-point play from Tyler Trusler and a McClain trifecta swung the lead back in Hampton’s direction, but the home team was right there with a Daniel Justes trey. At the quarter’s end, McClain tied it from the stripe with 2.7 seconds left to make it a 13-13 ball game entering the second.
Wartburg used a 12-3 run to take control of the game in the second quarter. A stiff press defense and missed inside buckets by the visitors allowed the home team to take a lead of 10.
Hampton fought back with buckets from Fields, McClain and Murray to make it a four-point game, but the assistance of three consecutive fouls on Hampton allowed Fountain and Zach Moore (10 points) to push Wartburg’s lead back to nine.
In spite of the momentum swing, Hampton had the last laugh with a last-second tip-in from Murray to make it a seven-point game at the break.
The deficit didn’t faze Hampton as it opened the second half with an offensive blazing fury, using field goals from McClain, Fields and Tyler Chambers to make it a one possession game.
McClain capped the quarter with a big bucket to tie the game at 46 all entering the final eight minutes.
The fourth quarter took a turn for the worst for Hampton.
Quiet for much of the game, Fountain and Richardson took control of the game in the last stanza hitting multiple buckets to give the home Bulldogs an 11-point advantage.
Hampton caught its last burst of wind in the final three minutes with McClain pushing the visitors within four with 45.2 seconds remaining.
Late turnovers and fouls prevented Hampton from a late charge as Wartburg fended off every punch with makes from the charity stripe and kept its season in play with the home victory.
“They’re a good team,” said McClain. “They really are a good team. I’m proud of my boys. We played good. Nobody expected us to even come this far. Hey, we couldn’t make it to state, but I’m proud of where we made it.”
In the end, despite falling one game short of the ’Boro, both Smith and McClain were pleased with the way their team responded late in the season with wins in seven of its last 10 games to close out the year.
“The team, that’s the reason we made it this far,” said McClain. “We just couldn’t find our chemistry at the start (of the season). After a while, we found it, we bonded and just went on a big streak.”
Added Smith: “They just kept working hard all year, even though we weren’t winning there early. It was a long stretch there, but they finally put it together and had good chemistry at the end of the season.
“The kids kept getting better. They had a good season and I’m proud of our kids working hard.”