SAN ANTONIO – Wagner boys basketball coach Rodney Clark wrote Saturday's date on the grease board in his office before the playoffs started nearly three weeks ago.
In addition to "3/11/17" he wrote "8:30." That's 8:30 p.m., to be exact.
"That's the last game of anybody's high school season," Clark said Friday night. "That's where I wanted to be. I didn't share that with the boys. That was a 'me' thing, so I could focus. If I focus and do what I'm supposed to do, then I can help those young guys focus."
Clark will be at the last game of the UIL boys basketball season Saturday night and so will the Thunderbirds.
Baylor-bound senior forward Tristan Clark had 17 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks, leading Wagner to a 56-44 victory over Keller in the Class 6A semifinals Friday night before a crowd of 12,609 at the Alamodome.
The Thunderbirds (36-2) will play Cypress Falls (34-3) in the championship game Saturday at 8:30 p.m. Cypress Falls advanced with a 46-43 triple-overtime win over Dallas Skyline.
Wagner reached the title game for the first time after losing in the semifinals in 2009 and 2010, when future NBA players Jordan Clarkson and Andre Roberson were juniors and seniors.
"It's great," Coach Clark said. "We got over the hump. We had a team with two present NBA guys. We got beat at the buzzer one year and the next year we couldn't pull it off. My little puppies, they pulled it off today. I'm ecstatic, but the work's not done."
The Thunderbirds won despite finishing with 28 turnovers and missing 12 of 29 free throws. But they offset those negatives by shooting 54.3 percent overall (19/35), although they were only 1 of 7 from beyond the arc.
"We've never had that many turnovers," Coach Clark said. "I can attribute that to us being young on a big stage like this. I think at points we got frantic. I didn't call timeouts, but they've got to finish it. They've got to understand because if they're going to try to do this again sometime in their baskeball career, whether it's in high school or college, they have to be able to just get the job done."
Tristan Clark, 6-foot-9, is the only senior on the Wagner starting lineup and one of just two seniors on the roster. Clark, who hit 7 of 10 shots, watched part of the third and fourth quarters on the bench after picking up his fourth foul in the third period.
"We had a lot of turnovers," Clark said. "We've got a really young team. This is their first time being out there. This is my first time being out here. This is a learning experience. We rallied together at the end, and we're just going to learn from it."
Wagner, which never trailed, jumped out to an 11-0 lead and was ahead 17-7 after one quarter. Keller (33-3) outscored the Thunderbirds 16-10 in the second period to cut their lead lead to four at the half. Wagner led by as many as 13 points in the third quarter and was up by that margin, 42-29, heading into the final period.
The Indians drew to within four, 45-41, on a free throw by R.J. Nembhard with 4:16 left, but that's as close as they got. The Thunderbirds outscored Keller 11-3 in the final two minutes. Tristan Clark and DaRaun Clark, who are not related, had five and four points, respectively, during that span. DaRaun Clark was 4 for 4 at the free-throw line.
"The pressure in their zone (defense) was pretty good," said DaRaun Clark, who is a nephew of the coach. "We weren't really used to that."
Sophomore Kevin McCullar and freshman Journee Phillips finished with 12 and 11 points, respectively. Phillips scored all his points in the third quarter, helping pick up the slack when Clark was on the bench. He hit all four of his field-goal attempts and went 3 for 5 at the free-throw line.
"He's always in the right place at the right time," Coach Clark said of Phillips. "Everybody is so focused on Tristan and DaRaun and Jalen (Jackson) and everybody else, that they go to them. Journee catches and finishes. He finishes very well. He's going to be a great player. He's a good player now as a freshman. I cannot wait to see him as a senior."
Tristan Clark, who is not related to the coach, also praised Phillips.
"He stepped up big time, especially since I was out," Clark said. "I'm proud of him."
Nembhard, who has signed with TCU, turned his left ankle with 1:16 left in the first quarter and was in and out of the game after sustaining the injury. He still led the Indians with 15 points, but made only 3 of 21 field-goal attempts and was 9 of 15 at the free-throw linel. Nembhard had averaged 31.6 in the playoffs.
"They're a great team," Nembhard said. "They play well together. They feed off their big man, Tristan Clark. They all buy in collectively. I think that's going to be able to push them over the edge."
So what's it going to take for the Thunderbirds to hoist the championship trophy Saturday night?
"Well, we can't have 28 turnovers," Coach Clark said. "I know that. Hopefully they don't run a zone. We didn't handle that one too well. We're just going to have to go back and work on us. That wasn't indicative of what we usually do, especially on the defensive end.
"I think the excitement brought fatigue and we let them get open a few times. We let calls that weren't going our way affect us. But we're a young team and it's going to happen. We just have to go and do a better job defensively, because we're good in half-court defense. That's what we stand on. We've just got to go give it everything we have. At this point, it's not about any other team. It's about what we do."
Tristan Clark also was asked what Wagner has to do to win the championship.
"Just leave it all on the floor," Clark said. "Just be aggressive. Cy Falls, they're a great team. We've just got to come out aggressive. We've got home-court advantage, so we've got to use it."
Here is a quarter-by-quarter breakdown of the Keller-Wagner state semifinal Friday night:
Final: Wagner 56, Keller 44
Fourth quarter (27.5): Wagner 52, Keller 44.
Fourth quarter (3:20): Wagner 45, Keller 41. The Indians have outscored the Thunderbirds 12-3 in the period.
End of third quarter: Wagner 42, Keller 29. Freshman Journee Phillips scored 11 points in the quarter for the Thunderbirds.
Halftime: Wagner 27, Keller 23
First-half notes: Wagner jumped out to an 11-0 lead and led 17-7 after one quarter. Keller outscored the Thunderbirds 16-10 in the second period to cut Wagner's lead to four at the half. The Indians never led in the first two quarters . . . Tristan Clark leads the Thunderbirds with 10 points and nine rebounds, but he picked up his third foul late in the second quarter. Point guard Jalen Jackson has only one point for Wagner, but he pulled down seven rebounds in the first half. The Thunderbirds outrebounded the Indians 24-15, but hurt themselves with 14 turnovers . . . RJ Nembhard and Preston Hannah lead Keller with eight and seven points, respectively. The Indians finished the half with six turnovers . . . Wagner shot 25.9 percent (7/27) in the first half and hit only 1 of 6 attempts (16.7 percent) from the 3-point line . . . Keller shot 41.7 percent (10/24) in the first two quarters and was 1 of 7 (14.3 percent) from beyond the arc. The Indians went 6 for 13 from the free-throw line.
Second quarter (2:19): Wagner 25, Keller 19. Tristan Clark leads the Thunderbirds with 10 points and nine rebounds.
End of first quarter): Wagner 17, Keller 7
UIL BOYS BASKETBALL STATE TOURNAMENT: Wagner faces Keller in semis Friday night
UIL Boys Basketball State Tournament
Class 6A semifinals (Friday)
Dallas Skyline (34-1) vs. Houston Cypress Falls (33-3), 7 p.m.
Wagner (35-2) vs. Keller (33-2), 8:30 p.m.
Championship game: 8:30 p.m., Saturday
Notable: Wagner is making its third appearance in the state tournament since its first varsity season in 2006-07.
SAN ANTONIO – By now, the hay’s in the barn.
The Wagner Thunderbirds have pored over scouting reports, spent hours watching video and worked out twice a day this week.
Now it’s time to lace ’em up and play the game.
“I know it’s the state tournament and a lot of people from San Antonio are going to be there to watch them play, but I’ve told our players it’s just another basketball game,” Wagner boys basketball coach Rodney Clark said after a workout this week. “You can’t get all caught up in the hype. You’ve got to go in like it’s any other game you’ve played all year.”
Clark speaks from experience. He was an assistant coach under Clifton Ellis when the Thunderbirds lost in the state semifinals in 2009 and 2010. Future NBA players Jordan Clarkson and Andre Roberson played on both teams, helping establish a tradition that has carried Wagner to the state tournament for the third time since its first varsity season in 2006-07.
Wagner (35-2) plays Keller (33-2) in the Class 6A state semifinals at 8:30 p.m. Friday at the Alamodome, where the University Interscholastic League boys state tournament tipped off Thursday morning.
Dallas Skyline (34-1) meets Houston Cypress Falls (33-3) in the first 6A semifinal at 7 p.m. Friday. The championship game is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. Saturday.
“We long as we play our game, we’ll be fine,” Clark said. “When we come out and do something other than we’re supposed to do, when the other team switches up a defense or does this or that, then we caught up in their game.”
Wagner edged Austin Westlake 55-53 in the Region IV-6A final last Saturday to punch its ticket to the state tournament. Junior guard DaRaun Clark, a nephew of the coach, hit a 3-pointer with 2.5 seconds left to lift the Thunderbirds to the victory.
Keller also won a thriller to earn its first state-tournament berth in school history, squeaking by Arlington Bowie 57-55 in the Region I title game on a steal and layup by Carson Hughes with 12 seconds left. Blue-chip guard R.J. Nembhard, who has signed with TCU, scored 37 points, hitting 10 of 20 field-goal attempts and all 14 of his free throws.
Wagner and Keller finished the regular season No. 7 and No. 13, respectively, in the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches Class 6A state rankings.
Baylor signee Tristan Clark scored 27 points for Wagner in the regional final against Westlake, and DaRaun Clark (no relation) added 14 points. DaRaun Clark is a nephew of Coach Clark.
Tristan Clark, 6-foot-8, averages 17.5 points, 10.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.2 blocks. DaRaun Clark and sophomore point guard Jalen Jackson average 12.4 and 10.4 points, respectively. Jackson leads the team in assists with a 3.8 average.
The Thunderbirds’ other two starters are sophomore guard/forward Kevin McCullar and freshman forward Journee Phillips.
Nembhard, who is 6-4, has averaged 31.6 points in the playoffs.
“They’ve got a great player in R.J. Nembhard,” Tristan Clark said. “I know he’s a big part of their team. We’re just going to try to go out and limit his points, and limit his production, so we can get the win. I just feel like if we all contribute and all do what we do and stay aggressive the whole game, we can win.”
Clark added that staying disciplined throughout the game will be critical to Wagner’s chances for success against the Indians.
The Thunderbirds’ march to the state tournament has created a buzz on the Wagner campus and the school’s community.
“Everybody is excited for that game,” Tristan Clark said. “A lot of people are going to be at the game, so I can’t wait.”
DaRaun Clark talked about the importance of following his uncle’s mantra this week
“If we play hard and just do what we do, like he (Coach Clark) always says, not a lot of teams can mess with us,” Clark said.
DaRaun Clark said he thinks the narrow victory over Austin Westlake prepared Wagner for the state tournament. The Chaparrals finished the regular season No. 12 in the TABC 6A state rankings.
“I feel like that was one of the best teams in Texas for 6A, so I felt like playing them was like an eye opener,” he said. “This teaches us how to finish games and play hard all the time.”
Rodney Clark is 112-55 since succeeding Ellis as the Thunderbirds’ coach in 2012. Wagner, which opened in 2005, and is completing in its 11th varsity season.