Freshmen Thomas Allen and Alex Reed worked their way into Garner’s starting lineup early in January. On Wednesday night against Cleveland, the pair made their presence felt in a big way in the Trojans’ 72-53 nonconference victory.
Allen, a guard, scored 20 points, and Reed, a forward, had 18 points as the Trojans won for the fourth time in five games to improve to 8-7.
Allen set the offensive tone in the third quarter, scoring 10 of his points as the Trojans outscored Cleveland (8-8) by a 23-7 margin to open up a 50-32 lead at the end of the pivotal period.
“A few games back when we played so poorly against Knightdale (in a loss on Jan. 7), we decided as a staff that we were going to play the freshmen and they played real well in the Southeast Raleigh game,” Garner coach Eddie Gray said. “I was kind of worried about this game because this was our first day of class (this week) and because of the inclement weather we hadn’t had a practice.
“We kind of walked through the first half. I was real pleased the way we responded in the second half and picked up the intensity on defense and started to attack their zone. Instead of settling for missed 3-point shots, we started getting some easy baskets and that was real important for us.”
Senior Kyrece Mills had 21 points for Garner, scoring 14 of those in the second half, including six points on three dunks. Mills converted a pair of alley-oop slams and had his final dunk on a baseline drive.
But it was the freshmen who bookended big halves. Reed had 10 points in the first half and Allen scored 15 points in the second half.
Allen scored on a fast break and hit a 3-pointer to begin the third period for the Trojans, igniting a 19-3 spurt in the first six minutes of the period that put Garner in control the rest of the way.
The Trojans switched from a 1-3-1 zone to a man-to-man press in the third period, and it forced the Rams into numerous turnovers – including a stretch in which Cleveland had turnovers on six of seven possessions.
“I knew defensively they were going to pick it up and we had to match their intensity, which we are still learning how to do,” Cleveland coach John Jacobs said. “They are a little bit stronger than us and when we feel pressure like that, sometimes we kind of lose our train of thought.”
The Rams got a game-high 22 points from senior Chase Jackson, 13 from junior Bobby Stenborg and 10 from junior Wanyae Hatfield.
Jacobs said the game against traditional power Garner will help the Rams (2-1 in Two River 3A Conference play) when they return to league play.
“A win or loss in a game like this is not that important,” Jacobs said. “It shows us what we need to get better on. They are a team that has been good for 25 years. It is a good challenge.
“It can only help us improve when we get back into conference play.”
Gray, the veteran Garner coach who has won more than 400 games, has one of his youngest teams. His current starting lineup is comprised on two freshmen, two juniors and a senior. The Trojans are in third place in the Greater Neuse River 4A Conference with a 4-2 record.
“We play the upper division teams at home the second go-round,” Gray said. “We’re a young team, but at this point of the season, we’re not young anymore.”
In the girls game, Garner held off Cleveland for a 44-43 victory, the second straight for the Trojans (3-8).
Adaya Thorpe made a pair of free throws for Garner with 13 seconds left that gave Garner a 44-40 lead after Cleveland (6-10) pulled within two points after trailing by six points with three minutes left in the game. Cleveland hit a 3-pointer with three seconds left for the final margin.
Garner’s top scorer, senior Khayani Chandler, had an off night offensively, scoring just five points. But she hit a bucket to start the Trojans on an 8-0 run to open the second half that gave Garner a 29-24 lead.
“We always play better in the third and fourth quarter it seems like,” Garner coach Hardrick Mays said. “I told (Chandler), if your shot is not on tonight, do the little things for us, get rebounds, get the loose balls. She did that, she played hard defensively.
“We said we’d just let our other players help us out. And that is what they did. They stepped up.”
Garner got 12 points from Amber Courtney and 10 from Kelsey Bryan.
Cleveland, which is off to a 3-0 start in the Two Rivers 3A, was led by Myrayna Watkins with 12 points and Skyler Allen with 11.
“We had a good shot at a 3-pointer when we were down two with 15 seconds left,” Cleveland coach Chris Danehower said. “I applaud Brittany (Preston) for taking it. I thought it was going to go in and we were going to win the game. But it didn’t
“It was a great game between two teams that I think will be a good rivalry. They are right down the road. It always helps you when you step out of conference. You are playing a 4A team is from a really tough conference and we went toe-to-toe. Either team could have pulled it out.
“I was really proud of our kids, their heart and how hard they played. This will help us as we carry on in the rest of our conference season.”