South Johnston wanted a 3-point shot in its final possession against rival Cleveland Friday night. It was a familiar feeling: the Trojans, who tend to live by the 3-ball on offense, had just one in the first half.
The Trojans kept working the ball, looking for a break in the Cleveland defense. Blake Tart got it, working a give-and-go along the baseline. Tart got by a Ram defender near the basket, drawing a foul.
Tart knocked down both free throws with 4.1 seconds left and South Johnston grabbed a 66-64 win over the Rams.
It was Cleveland’s first loss in Two Rivers 3A Conference play and leaves four teams (Cleveland, Triton, South Johnston and Corinth Holders) within a game of each other with six regular-season games left.
“We were running a set play for a 3-pointer but it wasn’t there,” said South Johnston coach David Dewey. “So we kept passing the ball to the top of the key, looking for what we call head turners where the defender gets caught with his head turned away from his man.
“That’s what we got and the guys executed when Blake got a step on the baseline.”
Cleveland’s Donovan Wright got off a running 3-point attempt at the buzzer but it missed the mark, giving South Johnston a thrilling win.
The Trojans (12-5 overall, 2-2 conference) stayed in the game in the first half despite hitting just one 3-pointer in the opening 16 minutes of play. Cleveland led 34-31 at the half.
The Rams (15-3, 3-1) pushed their lead to nine points late in the third quarter on a Jeff David basket. But it wasn’t long before South started finding its mark from behind the arch.
Josh Bethune dropped in a 3-ball with 1:56 to play in the quarter to get South Johnston within 48-43. Bethune hit another 3 to get South within one point.
“We only hit one 3 in the first quarter, but we hit a lot of shots in the second half,” Joshua said.
The Trojans trailed 52-50 at the end of the third quarter, but Bethune gave the Trojans a 55-54 lead on his third 3-ball of the half at 55-54.
Meanwhile, Cleveland plugged away on offense, maintaining its lead on a night when the high-scoring Ram offense wasn’t at its best. Isaiah Barnes led the Rams with 17 points on the night, but Cleveland senior standout Bobby Stenborg was limited in his chances against the Trojan defense.
“Bobby Stenborg is a great player, but Brett Clifton has given him everything he has on defense for three years,” Dewey said. “They really get after each other and you hope it’s something they look back at years down the road as just great memories, part of a great high school sports experience.”
Stenborg still did his some damage. His 24-foot 3-pointer with 3:12 to play gave Cleveland a 63-60 lead and appeared to sap South’s momentum. But Alan Johnson got free for a layup to cut the lead to one. Cleveland made just one free throw in the final three-plus minutes of play after Stenborg’s three.
South pulled even on a follow-up basket with 1:21 to play and the Trojans drew a charging call to end Cleveland’s next possession.
“Our sophomores drew five or six chargers (Landon Lockemy and DeParis Patterson) tonight,” Dewey said. “Landon had three, DeParis a couple and they hit a couple of baskets as well. Alan Johnson played well the whole game.”
Johnson had a game-high 19 points for the Trojans, while Clifton had a quiet 15 on offense to go with his stellar defensive night.
South spread the court after taking possession with just less than a minute to play, moving the ball in a way that had Dewey raving most of the night.
“We had several stretches possessions of great basketball,” Dewey said. “Where we got the ball inside and in good shooting positions where the ball never touched the floor. It was the New York Knicks in 1972, just beautiful basketball.”
Fifty seconds later, Tart got open on the baseline for the winning drive.
“We were down in the fourth quarter, then we hit some big shots,” Tart said. “We just stayed together as a team and played with fundamentals.”