Cleveland’s boys basketball team lined up in front of the basket for a team photo following Tuesday night’s 72-42 victory over South Johnston — the smiles of champions beaming on the faces of the Rams players and coaches.
Cleveland, a talented, veteran team with eight seniors on its roster, toasted to those seniors before the Ram’s final home regular-season game Tuesday night. Then the Rams went out and clinched the Two Rivers 3A Conference regular-season title in dominant fashion.
“They have been working hard for four years for this,” Cleveland coach John Jacobs said of his group of seniors. “I coached most of them as JVs, then for three years on varsity. They bought into what we were trying to do, got better each year, got into the weight room and believed in what they could do.
“They have showed it so far this year.”
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The Rams (20-3, 8-1 Two Rivers) showed it early against South Johnston.
Senior forward Bobby Stenborg, the league player of the year last season as a junior and a likely choice to repeat this season, hit 3-point shots on three consecutive Cleveland possessions in the first quarter and the Rams were off and running.
Stenborg finished with 21 points, making four of five from beyond the arc. The Rams hit 11 3-pointers in the game – including a pair from senior reserve John Lopp that had the student section jumping and clapping at the end.
“We have gotten better each year,” Jacobs said. “I think we won eight games (in 2012-13) and then 14 last year. This year we have won 20 so far. I kept telling them keep plugging away, keep believing in what we are doing. We changed a little bit up this year. We had the people to do it.”
The Rams use an up-tempo attack, pushing the ball up the court at every opportunity and playing a trapping defense that forces turnovers and fuels the fast break.
Cleveland was up 20-11 at the end of the first quarter and 41-22 at halftime. The scoring was spread out after Stenborg’s 21. Sean Early, a senior guard, had 11 points and five other Rams had at least five points.
“They shot the ball really, really well,” South Johnston coach David Dewey said. “Three-pointers, free throws, mid-range jumpers. They were just locked in.
“We did what we wanted to do for a while in the second half, kept the game under control and then cut it to 13 (47-34 with 2:18 left in the third quarter). After that, they hit three or four baskets and blew it open again.
After the Trojans (14-8, 4-5) had cut it to 13, Jaylen Pearce (8 points) hit a 3 and Stenborg followed up with another from beyond the arc. A pair of free throws by Donovan Wright and a bucket by Early with 20 seconds left in the period pushed the margin up to 23 at 57-34 at the end of the third period.
South Johnston, which finishes the regular season at Smithfield-Selma on Thursday and still has a shot at third place in the conference, was led by JaVonte Smith with 18 points.
But this was a night for eight Cleveland seniors to revel in the moment. The school, which opened in the fall of 2010, had its first boys basketball title.
“It was our goal last year and we didn’t quite accomplish it, we finished in second place,” Stenborg said. “It was our goal from the beginning this season. We knew we had the best chance in the conference. We showed it tonight.”
The Rams showed it all season, running to 20 victories with just three losses and more basketball to be played – the fire stoked by Stenborg and the group of steady seniors.
“It’s a special group, a very, very special group,” Jacobs said.