Smithfield-Selma’s final chapter to a season of changing the boys basketball program’s perception took added minutes in a somber locker room to digest.
The players and coaches remained behind closed doors nearly 20 minutes after falling to Asheboro in a 78-73 overtime loss in the second round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3A state playoffs Thursday night on the Blue Comets’ court.
But even harder for the 13th-seeded Spartans (17-10) to accept was knowing how close they had come to upsetting No. 4 seed Asheboro (22-4). Sophomore Kavon Ward led the Spartans with 23 points, senior Raequan Smith added 21 and senior Malik Frazier 10.
“I thought we fought hard and showed a lot heart like we always do,” Smithfield-Selma coach Matt Cuddington said. “(Asheboro) came out strong in the third quarter, but we regrouped. I thought what killed us was on the boards.”
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At the end of both the fourth quarter that finished in a 66-66 tie and in the overtime session Asheboro came up with long rebounds after missed free throws for second-chance points. But Cuddington wouldn’t accept that as merely the bounce of the ball.
“In rebounding there is no such thing as bad luck,” he said. “You either get the rebound or you don’t. That was one of the biggest factors in the game.”
Another was that the Spartans failed to take advantage of the Asheboro’s leading scorer playing in foul trouble and eventually fouling out. Tazmine Dunn, a 6-foot-3 point guard, created matchup problems for the Spartans. He scored a game-high 24 points despite sitting out over seven minutes.
But Dunn’s foul trouble was a blessing in disguise. The Blue Comets moved the ball better without him. He picked up his third foul on an offensive charge with 3:46 left in the second quarter and Smithfield-Selma leading 19-14. The Blue Comets outscored the Spartans the rest of the period 10-8 to trail only 27-24 at halftime.
Dunn went to the bench for good with 3:30 to play on with his third offensive foul of the night – the other two fouls were over the back offensive rebounding and one playing defense – with the Smithfield-Selma leading 56-55. Asheboro rallied to take 66-63 lead with seven seconds to play, but the Spartans weren’t done.
Smith took a pass from Isaiah Watson on the left side and hit a three-point field goal at the buzzer to force overtime. The Spartans beat a press with a pass to the middle to Watson. He was out of shooting range above the top of the key, but he had the presence of mind to know there was still time and found Smith.
The Spartans led briefly in OT 73-72 on a three-pointer by Ward with 1:55 to play, but the magical season came to an end when they failed to score the rest of the way.
“Our seniors changed the whole face of the program,” said Cuddington, who was promoted from assistant to interim head coach late last season and had the tag removed this year. “For years SSS had a stigma about it, but we got past that. This group had breakthrough not only for this team, but the whole program.”
Smithfield-Selma will lose a half-dozen players to graduation: Chris Turner, Tre Tinsley, SaQuan Young, SaQuan Young, Frazier and Smith.
“They’ve got a lot to be proud of,” Cuddington said. “I hope the underclassmen returning can keep it rolling.”