It would have been a big game even if a potential berth in the state 3A playoffs wasn’t on the line but as South Johnston and Smithfield-Selma boys’ basketball teams squared off on Thursday night, that was exactly what was at the heart of their meeting.
With emotions running high, the visiting Spartans showed poise beyond their years as Smithfield-Selma raced through the finish line for a 52-47 victory that clinched the No. 3 seed in the Two Rivers 3A Conference, which will conduct its tournament this upcoming week. Barring a South Johnston, Corinth Holders or Western Harnett winning the conference tournament, SSS goes into the state playoffs with an automatic bid based on the Thursday win.
A 3-point attempt from South Johnston’s Josh Bethune with 10 seconds remaining that would have tied the game rimmed in and out and Smithfield-Selma’s Malik Frazier sealed the game with a pair of free throws in the final seconds.
The win moved the Spartans’ conference mark to .500 at 5-5 and all but assured that Smithfield-Selma would make the state playoffs for a second consecutive year. The loss left the Trojans at 4-6 in the conference and in fourth place but South Johnston’s 14 regular season wins this year would probably be rewarded if the Trojans end up in the wildcard pool.
“It was a great high school basketball game,” South Johnston coach David Dewey said. “It’s just that we didn’t win.”
The Spartans closed the game on a 22-8 run going back to the third quarter when they trailed the Trojans 39-30 with 1:50 remaining in the period.
Junior Raequan Smith scored his team’s final 15 points of the third quarter and his three-pointer in the waning seconds of the frame knotted the score at 40-40.
In the fourth period, it was sophomore guard Malik Frazier’s turn to supply the offense. His three-pointer from the wing in the opening minute gave the Spartans their first lead since the early moments of the first quarter.
Frazier drove for another basket to extend Smithfield-Selma’s lead to three points with 3:20 remaining before making 6-of-8 free throws down the stretch to hold off the Trojans.
“Poise and the wanting to survive,” Smithfield-Selma interim coach Matt Cuddington said of what drove his team down the stretch. “We talked about survival before the game. Just wanting to survive and get to the playoffs — that was something that these boys wanted to do.”
In the first half, it wasn’t clear what the Spartans’ chances of survival would be due to Alan Johnson’s offensive explosion. South Johnston’s senior point guard tallied 21 points in the opening half alone including going 10-for-10 at the foul line.
Johnson’s heroics helped the Trojans build a 12-point lead late in the second quarter.
Smithfield-Selma’s focus out of halftime was to get the ball out of Johnson’s hands as much as possible in the second half. Johnson sill managed seven more points to finish with 28 but without being able to find uncontested paths to the basket, Johnson was reduced mostly to kicking the ball to his shooters.
“We wanted to drive and kick,” said Dewey. “We had the opportunity a few times. We just didn’t knock down shots early. If we could have knocked down shots early, the lead might have been a little larger.
“Then we were having to hit shots to catch back up late and in the third quarter when they made that big run.”
Unfortunately for South Johnston (14-9, 4-6), not enough of those shots fell.
When asked how his team remained calm and collected in such a raucous atmosphere and with a lot to play for, Cuddington easily pointed his finger at the difference in the game.
“Guard play,” Cuddington said succinctly. “Our leaders took charge (Keir Carney, Frazier and Smith). They knew that when we were up and they went into that zone, that it was time to milk it. When they came out against us in man, hey, we practiced against man that every day.
“We should be able to hold the basketball and win it at the free throw line and we did.”
Raequan Smith paced the Spartans (10-12) with 21 points and 12 rebounds while Frazier ended his evening with 19 points. Josh Raiford added seven points and 10 rebounds for Smithfield-Selma.
Brett Clifton added seven points and 11 rebounds for South Johnston and Bethune hit two 3-pointers in the third quarter to help add to Johnson’s output.
Cleveland 78, Western Harnett 51: Conference champion Cleveland finished the Two Rivers 3A Conference regular season schedule with another big victory.
Since a 66-64 setback against South Johnston on Jan. 23, the Rams (21-3 overall, 9-1 conference) have averaged a 28-point margin of victory in their last six games. Their closest game was a 16-point win over Smithfield-Selma on Jan. 30.
Cleveland led 44-26 at the half against Western. Bobby Stenborg led the Rams with 22 points, while Isaiah Barnes added 12 points. Four other Rams had seven or eight points on the night.
Triton 51, Corinth Holders 41: Erwin Triton, the No. 2 team in the Two Rivers 3A Conference, finished the regular season in winning fashion Thursday with a 51-41 victory at Corinth Holders.
The Hawks (12-11, 7-3 Two Rivers) led by five points at the end of the third quarter and expanded the lead to nine at 41-32 with 3:46 left in the game. Corinth Holders (5-18, 3-7) pulled within 45-41 but Triton salted the victory away by making seven of 11 free throws in the final 1:01.
Raynor Weaver led Triton with 16 points and Jaquan Harris add 10.
Matt Minga had nine points for Corinth Holders.
D. Clay Best and Bill Woodward contributed.