With his top-seeded Cleveland girls basketball team trailing by eight points at halftime of the Two Rivers 3A Conference tournament championship game, Rams coach Chris Danehower had a simple message for his team.
“All I said was, ‘Go out there and play like champions,’” Danehower said.
Cleveland did just that, taking the lead with a 20-point third period and going on to post a 60-49 victory over second-seeded Erwin Triton.
The Rams, who had gone through the regular season unbeaten in the conference, improved to 24-2. Triton dropped to 17-7. Both teams will advance to the state playoffs.
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“I’m really proud of this group,” Danehower said. “A lot of people doubted us coming into this year … but they ain’t doubting us no more. We’re not done. We’ve got some more winning to do.
“We’re going into the state tournament and we’re ready to go.”
Triton, getting 14 first-half points from Je’nae Harvey, led 28-20 at halftime. Harvey finished with 16 and Tarica Worney added 12 for the Hawks.
The second half belonged to Cleveland. The Rams hit 3-pointers on three of their first four second-half possessions to take a 31-30 lead and then gradually pulled away.
“We were a little jittery early,” Danehower said. “I thought we rushed our shots and didn’t finish inside. I just told them just keep taking it in there and get your balance and the shots will go in. When we are on balance, we are a really good shooting team.”
The Rams also picked it up on defense in the second half, forcing turnovers and pushing the pace. Senior Myrayna Watkins was at the end of many of those fast breaks and finished with a team-high 16 points.
“We came together (in the second half),” Watkins said. “We just started talking on defense. We just got hyper. Our attitudes took a 360 and we just went with it. We knew we didn’t play well in the first half but we went out and turned it around and turned up the heat.”
Cleveland led 40-36 at the end of the third quarter and was up by 15 points at 57-42 with 2½ minutes left in the game.
The Rams had a balanced offense. Watkins was the lone player in double figures, but four other players scored at least eight points. Courtney McGregor and Tehya Lee had nine points each and Amber Scott and Kailin Williamson had eight each.
“We just play off each other,” Danehower said. “This group, when somebody is down, somebody picks them up. Somebody always steps up at the opportunistic time.
“This game was a microcosm of our entire season. We struggled a little bit but once we got it going and buckled down and defense and started rebounding, we just took over.”
Two Rivers 3A Girls
First Round: South Johnston 49, Western Harnett 23; Corinth Holders def. Smithfield-Selma
Semifinals: Cleveland 41, Corinth Holders 30; Triton 64, South Johnston 56
Championship: Cleveland 60, Triton 49