It wasn’t that long ago that Bobby Stenborg was a young player on a fledgling team.
They grow up so fast, don’t they?
Stenborg’s 21 points helped propel the Cleveland Rams into the third round of the 3A boys basketball playoffs Monday with a 69-63 win over visiting Eastern Guilford. The second-seeded Rams (23-3) will face seventh-seeded Havelock on at 7 p.m. on Tuesday.
Cleveland opened its doors in 2010 and in its first four years of varsity basketball won just 28 out of 98 games, including back-to-back six-win seasons in Stenborg’s first two years. But now this veteran Rams team loaded with eight seniors and five juniors has won 20 of their last 21 games and are just three wins away from the state title game.
“We’ve definitely gotten more mature and we’ve started playing together as a team more,” Stenborg said. “Over the years playing together, we’ve made a bond and are able to trust each other and be on the same page.”
Cleveland sure didn’t lose any confidence against the 15th-seeded Wildcats (20-6), even after falling behind by eight points early in the third quarter and watching all the momentum shift Eastern Guilford’s way.
“They’ve been working hard in the weight room, they’ve been believing in what we’re doing and working hard in practice,” third-year coach Cleveland coach John Jacobs said. “We’ve got some good ballplayers. It’s just confidence and confidence goes a long way.”
A turning point came when Cleveland trailed 38-32 midway through the quarter and Sean Early hit a one-handed leaner in the paint and drew the foul. His three-point play sparked a 9-0 run that gave the Rams their first lead since the opening minute of the second quarter.
But the Wildcats and their run-and-gun offense hung around and even took a brief 53-52 lead with just over four minutes remaining in the game. It wasn’t until there were 42 seconds left and Cleveland nursing a 63-61 lead did the Rams finally separate themselves, and it was Stenborg who provided the exclamation point. His acrobatic runner off the glass was good for two and a foul and the senior calmly sank the ensuing free throw that all but iced the game.
“We’ve been playing fast all year. That was actually a good matchup for us,” Stenborg said. “We were able to match their speed and get back into position most of the time.”
Cleveland, whose last loss came on Jan. 23, was able to match the dizzying pace and physical tone set by Eastern Guilford’s fastbreak tempo.
“I always want to play fast,” Jacobs said. “And if it gets physical, that’s good too. The longer you go in the playoffs, (the referees) are going to let you play more.”
Jeff David followed up Stenborg’s effort with 15 points of his own, while Isaiah Barnes added 10 for Cleveland.
Eastern Guilford’s Quayson Williams, who led the Wildcats with 21.9 points per game this season, was held in check with just three points in the first half and only 12 overall.
“I thought last summer that we could be pretty good,” Jacobs said. “I didn’t think we’d be quite this good.”
He likely isn’t alone.