NORMAN — The game was slipping away. Southmoore, once down 14 points, had cut the Norman High lead to just four points at 46-42 in the fourth quarter of Tuesday’s showdown. Worse yet, the Tigers’ offense had stalled, with the SaberCats blocking off the driving lanes and clogging the paint to prevent center Sam Blodgett from getting an open look.
It wasn’t the first time the Tigers had watched a lead slip away this year. NHS has held several late leads this year only to watch them disappear as the other team made a comeback to snatch victory. And with Southmoore hot and the Tigers dazed, it looked as if it might happen again.
That was when, with three minutes left in the game, sophomore Cooper Clark calmly dribbled past a defender, pulled up from just inside the three-point line and cleanly swished a bucket to give the Tigers some breathing room.
Fifteen minutes later, after NHS had secured a 53-48 victory over Southmoore on the back of Clark’s 12 points and numerous clutch shots, coach Matt Thornton didn’t hold back.
“Cooper will find a way a win, and it’s so important to have that on your team,” he said. “Honestly, there’s more being asked of him than what should be for a sophomore, but he’s a very talented kid and accepts that challenge.”
Meeting challenges is nothing new for Clark, the son of former NHS coach Wes Clark. He’s played basketball his entire life, with many of those years coming under his father’s tutelage as the coach for his AAU team.
Clark was looking forward to playing for his father at NHS, but after his dad left the team in 2010 partially due to needing knee surgery, Clark had to change his plans. Not that it slowed him down any. As a freshman a year ago under coach Jeff McCullough, Clark impressed the coach enough to earn a prominent sixth-man role off the bench for a loaded Tiger team.
That squad was filled with seniors, and their departure left a void to fill, as did McCullough’s decision to move on. But when new coach Matt Thornton arrived at NHS just weeks before practice began in October, it didn’t take him long to notice Clark, who has done more than his part to fill the scoring void as the season’s progressed. His explosiveness has at times carried the Tiger offense, especially after senior Jay Finley went out a month ago with a stress fracture in his lower back.
Team captain Daniel Harper predicted before the season that Clark would “amaze people,” and the soft-spoken but battle-hardened Clark hasn’t disappointed. His ability to drive to the basket or pull up from outside gives him the ability to create his own shot whenever needed, an element the Tigers were sorely missing after Finley’s departure.
It’s not an easy responsibility for a sophomore to shoulder. But, not for the first time, Clark has stepped up his game to do what his team needs.
“It’s more of a responsibility on me, but I like the challenge,” he said. “We didn’t have a lot of starting experience coming back this year, but myself and some of these other guys have played before and knew we could do it. It’s been a good transition and a good year so far.”
A good year that figures to get better down the stretch for the 8-10 Tigers, who got Finley back last week and are finally returning to full strength for the final two weeks of the regular season. With the win over Southmoore, NHS has won their last three of four, with two of those victories coming over teams that defeated the Tigers earlier in the season. That progress has Thornton confident his team can make a deep playoff run, with Clark playing a major role.
“He’s just a sophomore, but these seniors have adopted him and he’s capable of going off at any time,” he said. “I expect big things from him.”
For Clark, it all goes back to those years of playing for his father, from chilly early mornings in their driveway at home to late nights in humid gyms across the state.
“He was always drilling me and teaching me the tools of the game,” he said. “It helped me to mature faster. He made me feel like more is always possible and to not let anybody tell me different.”
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