Garner wasn’t able to get the up-tempo game it wanted until the second half of Friday night’s Greater Neuse River 4A Conference game against rival Clayton. That was still more than enough time for the Trojans, No. 3 in The News & Observer rankings.
Ahead just 21-14 at halftime and unable to put its offense in high gear because of an effective zone by Clayton, the Trojans turned up the heat in the second half and ran to a 56-35 victory to remain unbeaten in the league.
“In the first half Clayton was doing a great job of controlling tempo,” Garner coach Eddie Gray said. “We don’t want to play that slow. They were in that zone and we weren’t getting any ball movement … and we were settling for outside jumpers. When we got it outside we were missing some shots.
“We weren’t getting any turnovers and turning turnovers into baskets. That is what we have done all year. In the second half, we got more of that. We changed the tempo of the game and we got some easy run-out baskets. The kids responded to the adversity of the first half and played an inspired second half.”
Garner (18-1, 10-0 GNRC) was led by junior forward Jashaun Smith with 16 points. Junior guard Nick Kuhns and senior point guard Julius Barnes added 10 each.
Garner was up 30-18 late in the third period when Clayton’s Kevin Jones hit consecutive 3-pointers to trim the lead to 30-24 with 1:43 left in the period.
Barnes answered with a 3-pointer from the top of the key and a pair of free throws. The Trojans led 36-24 at the end of the third period and had a 20-point fourth quarter to win going away.
“All the kids want to dunk the basketball,” Gray said. “I tell them every day in practice the biggest play in basketball is the 3-point shot. Fortunately, we had some kids on the team who can shoot (the 3) and we practice it every day. Anytime you can respond back (like Barnes did), it helps to kill the momentum some.”
Clayton (9-11, 3-7) played much of the game without leading scorer Tre Armstead, who left in the first quarter with a hip pointer and did not return.
The Comets were led by Xavier Williams with 11 points and Jones with 10.
“We felt good defensively about what we did in the first half,” Clayton coach Denny Medlin said. “Garner missed some shots in the first half which helped us out. The problem was that we only had 14 points ourselves.
“Beating Garner is a very tall task. But when you take our leading scorer off the floor it becomes an even taller task. I thought our kids played real hard but Garner is really good. When they pulled us out of the zone, it was tough for us to defend them.”
In the fourth period, Garner had a lead to work with and was able to coax Clayton to come out of the zone by holding the ball out front. Once the Comets went to man, the Trojans went to town.
“Once we got the lead near the end of the game, we make them play man-to-man,” Gray said. “That gives us a chance to do what this team can do and that is dribble drive, slash and kick (the ball back outside). That is what this team is really good at.
“That is an offense that I got when I was a JV coach. I think Adolph Rupp used to run it, so we call it ‘Kentucky.’ ”
The Comets still have an eye on a spot in the playoffs, Medlin said.
“We have four (conference) games left and they are four games that we could possibly win,” Medlin said. “We are going to try and get to 7-7 (in the league).”