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Sunday, Aug. 28, 2016

McClinton has more than lived up to his hype

Sunday, March 9, 2003

After averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds per game, Lontas McClinton was nominated as a McDonald's All American.
SIKESTON - When Lontas McClinton was younger, playing on AAU basketball teams during his elementary school and middle school years, everybody that saw him knew they were witnessing something special.

No matter the size of the opponent or the caliber of teams, McClinton was always unstoppable when it came to scoring and grabbing rebounds.

To no surprise, McClinton continued that dominance on the varsity level for the Sikeston Bulldogs.

He was selected as a second-team all-stater as a junior after averaging 19 points and nine rebounds per game.

This year he bettered those numbers, averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds per game while displaying a better all-around game.

"As a sophomore he produced well at times, but he really matured physically and mentally as a junior and became such a good player," said Sikeston head coach Gregg Holifield. "Probably his junior and senior year he was as steady and solid as any player in the area I'd say."

While a first-team all-state selection would be icing on the cake, McClinton has already racked up one prestigious honor, being nominated as a McDonald's All-American.

Despite leading the conference in scoring as a junior, he was nipped out for SEMO Conference Player of the Year honors by New Madrid County Central's Dereke Tipler.

Although this year's SEMO Conference Player of the Year won't be announced until after all league teams are finished playing, McClinton is certainly a lock for the all-conference team.

And despite the fact that the Bulldogs finished tied for third in the nine-team conference, McClinton is a favorite to win the Player of the Year award.

He was also selected, along with teammate Lavar Morgan, to compete in the B.A. Sports All-Star Extravaganza held in Poplar Bluff.

So the awards and honors just keep piling up for Sikeston's most decorated basketball player since Bryan Ellitt in 2000.

But something is missing.

For all of McClinton's individual accomplishments, the team could never make a state playoff run.

He did play a large role in Sikeston's Class 4A district championship in 2000 when he was a freshman.

"I didn't realize how big a deal that was at the time," said McClinton. "Looking back on it, winning that district championship and being a part of that team really means a lot to me."

And this year, after playing a rigorous schedule, McClinton and the Bulldogs were certain they would make some noise in the playoffs.

But that dream ended in the district semifinals against Notre Dame when Morgan's game-winning basket was waved off when a controversial foul was called on Morgan with 0.2 seconds remaining.

It was a moment that broke McClinton's heart.

It was a moment that will, in his own mind, overshadow anything else he ever did on the court.

"If we would've never gotten that bad call we probably would be on our way to Columbia," said McClinton. "My player just jumped, it wasn't over the back or anything. It just wasn't right. I've known that ref since I was 10 years old and he called something like that on us. I couldn't believe it. I really just felt like breaking down and crying right there on the court. I'll never forget it."

McClinton's desire to win was shown by his emotional behavior on the court.

He had a reputation for being volatile and hot-tempered. Most teams knew they couldn't guard him, so they would try to take advantage of him by baiting him and taunting him, trying to somehow get into his head.

But McClinton never bit.

"That stuff got to me when I was in the 10th grade, but the last two years I just laughed and joked along with them because it didn't bother me a bit," said McClinton. "I didn't care about that stuff. I just wanted to win. I never got upset at trash talking. I would only get upset when we didn't win."

Holifield said McClinton's reputation for being temperamental is overblown.

"He's just an emotional person and he played with a lot of emotion," said Holifield. "There's not a player on that court that wanted to win any worse than Lontas did. That's why at times he got emotional. But you can watch him play, he was always getting beaten on and banged on, but he kept his composure throughout the past two years and he did an outstanding job."

But it almost didn't happen.

In an effort to save him, Holifield had to get rid of him midway through his sophomore season.

"That's just one of those live and learn lessons," said Holifield. "Lontas did, and he came back from it. Just like the champion that he is, he learned from it and matured from it. He got better in every facet of the game, and as a person also. He probably developed more as a person and a player than anybody I've ever coached."

Missed practices and a rebellious attitude led to the parting of ways. But McClinton returned the next two years a changed young man.

He didn't miss a single practice and his hunger to improve went through the roof.

"I learned a lot from that," said McClinton. "It made me a better person and player. I wanted to dedicate my next two years to be the best player I could be."

And he did.

McClinton went from a good, productive sophomore that averaged 14 points and 8.5 rebounds per game to one of the star players in the area.

"I just couldn't ask for any person to come in the last two seasons and work any harder than he has in practice," said Holifield. "He was a good practice player. He worked extremely hard in practice every day, he never missed anything and was always on time. He was very responsible."

McClinton is one of Sikeston High School's all-time leading scorers with 1,224 career points, and he's one of the school's all-time leading rebounders with 659 boards.

On top of that, his field goal percentage increased every year, topping out at 63 percent this season.

"Probably the thing he did as well as anybody was his consistent numbers," said Holifield. "Just about every night he took the load and would put up 20 points and 10 rebounds on a consistent basis. His consistency to me is the most impressive thing. After every game you could look at the box scores and he'd have his 20 points and 10 boards."

When he was younger, many would ponder how much McClinton would grow. He was always tall for his age.

A typical response would be, "it won't matter."

And to no surprise, it didn't matter.

McClinton grew to 6-foot-3, and a steady dose of weight-lifting helped chisel his frame to 200 pounds. And like his playing days as a youngster, the size of the opponent never bothered him.

He battled top-ranked teams of all sizes, with 6-foot-9 centers and collapsing defenses. Most teams structured their entire defensive game-plans around McClinton.

It still didn't matter.

"I don't think I've ever seen a player get surrounded like Lontas did," said Holifield. "He's the only player I've ever had that had that much attention around him. He was quite a factor inside. He received a lot of attention from a lot of teams when they were double- and triple-teaming him at times and he helped us win a lot of games."

His explosive leaping ability and quickness made him virtually unguardable for any one player.

With a wide array of spin moves and simply shooting over the top of people, McClinton's athleticism was unmatched by any player in the area.

He often took great pleasure in exciting the fans with spectacular slam dunks.

"He's probably the most explosive player we've had here as far as getting off the floor," said Holifield. "He's very quick off the floor and he's very explosive around the basket. That's why he's so hard to guard and so hard to contain, because he can just jump up over people and there's just not many players that come along with that type of ability."

McClinton played the four, or power forward, in high school. But he will most likely be moved to a wing position in college.

"He's already made a great deal of improvement over the past year in his jumpshot and his ball-handling skills," said Holifield. "He's worked very hard to improve those skills. At the next level he'll probably end up playing the three-spot. He's just going to mature and get better in every facet of the game I feel."

McClinton's improvement was evidenced by his stats. He made 4-of-10 three-pointers this season in addition to his increased field goal percentage. And he rarely turned the ball over.

"I don't think I'd be able to play in the post in college," said McClinton. "I think I'd probably play the three-spot or something. But I think I'd have an advantage on most of the guards because I know how to play the post game real well. I need to improve my ball-handling skills and my jump-shot."

Holifield says McClinton will most likely need two years to work on his perimeter game at a junior college.

"He's going to get some opportunities to play somewhere," said Holifield. "He's probably going to go the junior college route which would be a good experience for him and a good opportunity. I feel like he can do very well at that level. He'll just grow and mature and continue to improve."

Considering all they've been through, Holifield has gotten plenty of praise for not giving up on McClinton.

But he says he's just as proud of McClinton's progress off the court as he is anything he's done on it.

"There's no doubt about it, Lontas is a success story," said Holifield.