The Clayton boys basketball team has dominated all Johnston County rivals for the past decade.
That run was temporarily halted, however, Friday at Smithfield-Selma where the Spartans used a relentless defensive effort to contain the Comets en route to a 52-49 win.
In a tight battle that Smithfield-Selma led for most of the night, the Comets had a chance to tie the game on their final possession.
After Spartan guard D.J. Williams hit two free throws with five seconds remaining, Clayton’s Cam Newkirk pushed the ball up the floor before finding the Tre Armstead for an open look from 3-point range that would have tied the game but instead hit off the front rim.
The Spartans’ victory broke a streak of 15 consecutive losses to their county rivals dating back to January of 2007 and gave the Comets their first loss to a Johnston County opponent since February 4th, 2010.
Clayton has won 47 out of its last 50 contests against in-county teams.
“It’s gotten so one-sided that even though we’re rivals… I don’t think they feel threatened by us anymore,” said Smithfield-Selma coach James Robinson, describing the rivalry between the two schools. “They’re a really good team. It’s nice to finally be able to chalk one up.”
The key for the Spartans (5-1) was in slowing down the Comets’ Tre Armstead in transition. In a 12-point defeat at Clayton the previous week, Armstead tallied 34 points with 23 coming in transition.
Though Armstead did lead all Comets with 19 points, Malik Frazier, Chris Turner and D.J. Williams all took turns in slowing down Armstead, not allowing him free paths to the basket.
When Armstead did get to the basket, John Lucas and Josh Raiford stood their ground inside.
Raiford turned in a huge game on both ends of the court, netting 14 points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots.
“He’s a sophomore, but he played like a man,” Robinson said. “He was motivated. He put his heart and soul into this game and he was exhausted after it was over.”
For Clayton (4-2), coach Denny Medlin noticed a glaring similarity between the Comets’ loss to the Spartans and Clayton’s only other defeat of the year so far against Middle Creek.
“We’ve got to learn how to run our offense,” said Medlin. “I thought Smithfield-Selma did a good job mixing up their defenses and forcing us to recognize it. A lot of times, we were freelancing too much so we didn’t get good shots. In our two losses this year, we haven’t moved the ball well.”
The Spartans took their biggest lead of the game to start the final quarter when Marquise Longmire canned a pair of free throws for a 41-36 advantage.
The Comets rallied with six straight points before Williams got an offensive put-back and Raiford found Frazier for a three-pointer on the next Smithfield-Selma possession.
“There were times when I thought Smithfield was playing harder than us,” Medlin said. “People are going to get up to play us; we’ve got to match their intensity and I don’t feel like we did.”
An Armstead three-point play drew the visitors to within one point with 14 seconds to go but Williams came through when he was fouled with five seconds to play.
Kevin Jones and Xavier Williams each helped the Clayton cause with nine points apiece.
Williams had 21 points to lead Smithfield-Selma and Raequan Smith had eight points.
It’s early, but Robinson likes the potential in an extremely young group.
“They are tenacious; they are driven,” said Robinson, who traces his team’s confidence back to its impressive run in the Fred Lynch basketball camp in Wilmington last summer. “We’ve got a lot of youth but a lot of talent. We’ve just got to keep them and continue to build.”