With the holiday break close at hand, the Clayton and Garner boys basketball teams renewed their Greater Neuse River Conference rivalry Thursday night.
And although the Trojans used a huge third quarter to pull away for a 74-56 win, both teams used the meeting as a springboard to an important part of the season to test themselves, to get better and to hit their stride.
Clayton went toe-to-toe with Garner, who entered the contest undefeated, and trailed just 39-36 at the break. The Trojans finally slowed the Comets’ dribble penetration in the third quarter, however, and held Clayton to just six points while stretching out their lead to 58-42 with eight minutes left.
Veteran Garner coach Eddie Gray knew the Comets would come out strong and that the rivalry would provide the perfect setting, a precursor of sorts, for the Trojans in advance of their participation in the Holiday Invitational at Broughton High School in eight days.
Garner (9-0, 3-0 Greater Neuse River 4A Conference) is scheduled to take on perennial power Millbrook in the first round on Dec. 26 with the game taking place at Broughton High School.
“This kind of game, this kind of intensity — it’s got to make you better going forward,” Gray said of his team’s victory over the Comets. “In that kind of atmosphere, we’re going to have to go in and probably play the best team in the east in the first round.”
Clayton’s backcourt tandem of Tre Armstead and freshman McCaleb Robertson, recently called up to varsity, was able to inflict damage on the offensive end in the first half, often beating their defenders to create open looks for either themselves or teammates.
Armstead poured in 15 of his game-high 27 points in the opening 16 minutes and Robertson added 10 points in that span to help the Comets keep pace with Garner.
Clayton will compete in the Cleveland Classic Holiday Tournament and will look at the competition as a chance to get better and to take the steps necessary to ensure it is playing its best basketball at the end of the season.
“Every game’s hard and every game’s a battle but our guys are staying mentally tough and I think we’re going to be a team that others don’t want to play late in the season,” Clayton coach Denny Medlin said. “I feel like this team is going to turn a corner and hit its stride here soon.”
The Garner backcourt comprised of Thomas Allen and Julius Barnes prevented Armstead and Robertson from turning the corner much in the second half to help the Trojans remain unbeaten heading into the Christmas tournament.
Barnes and his teammates are looking forward to the experience to compete against some of the best local teams.
“I think it’s a big opportunity for us,” Barnes said of playing in the tournament. “It prepares us a lot for the playoffs to play a really good team. We play a real good team first and it’s just a good experience.”
JaShaun Smith led all Trojan scorers with 24 points while Barnes and Allen added 16 and 13, respectively.
The Trojans held a big advantage in rebounding the basketball as Alex Reed and Smith helped limit the Comets’ chances at the basket.
Reed finished the game with 11 points and eight rebounds.
Gray feels that contribution inside will be important for his team to have a good showing in the tournament.
“As long as we get guard play out of Julius Barnes and Thomas Allen and if we can get the kind of games like we got out of Alex Reed the last two games with his board play, we can play with some of the better teams in the state.
“We’re looking forward to it. We’re going to practice during the holidays, get over there and do the best that we can do.”
Clayton (4-6, 0-3) received a solid contribution from Xavier Williams as the big man totaled nine points, six rebounds and three blocks.
Although off to a rough start in conference play, Medlin eyes his team’s holiday tournament as a chance to get a head start on the rest of the conference schedule by working on some weaknesses and finding out the potential of a group still coming together.
“We’re going to be trying to turn things around in that tournament,” said Medlin. “Hopefully, when we come back after the first of year and resume conference play, we’ll keep improving and get even better.”