CLAYTON — Cleveland is making big noise in the races for both boys and girls basketball regular-season championships in the new Two Rivers 3A conference.
And by sweeping their varsity matchups with Johnston county rival Corinth Holders Friday night, the Rams kept up the pace.
Sean Early’s 13 points paced the Rams in the boys game, a 53-45 win over the visiting Pirates.
Cleveland improved to 11-9 overall and 5-2 in conference action, holding second place and remaining just a game behind conference leader Triton with a two-game pad on everyone else and three games left in the regular season. The Pirates dropped to 4-15 and 3-4.
In girls’ play, junior center Skylar Allen led the way with 12 points in a 46-36 Cleveland victory.
Cleveland improved to 9-11, 6-1 and in second place in Two Rivers action, with a first-round bye in the conference tournament virtually assured. Corinth Holders fell to 5-12 and 1-6.
This is the first season in which the Rams and Pirates, from the county’s newest high schools, have seniors who entered the school as freshmen.
Boys: Cleveland 53, Corinth Holders 45
Bobby Stenborg added 12 points for the Rams, while Jaylyn Neal paced the Pirates with 12 points.
“This one was really important,” Cleveland coach John Jacobs said. “We were one game in front of them, so it helps. Any game in our conference is a big one. Corinth Holders plays good defense, and we do too. Sometimes it’s ugly, but when we can keep the other team in the 40s we’re usually going to win.”
Cleveland, which had never beaten the Pirates until this season, won the teams’ first meeting 62-50 on Jan. 17 in Wendell.
“We needed a few breaks we didn’t get,” Corinth Holders coach Chris Davis said. “And we turned the ball over too many times during a stretch in the third quarter when we got a little hurried. And we’ve got to do better with help-side defense. Sometimes that got lost in the mix.”
The Pirates led 8-7 after one quarter, and there were six lead changes before a three-point play from Early gave Cleveland the lead for good at 22-21 with 2:37 left in the half.
Corinth Holders was never closer than four points back in the second half.
“We shot free throws pretty well,” Early said. “I think we were better this time than the first time we played them. This was a pretty big win to get us into second place, but we’re looking at first.”
Girls: Cleveland 46, Corinth Holders 36
The Rams trailed only once, at 16-15 after Neal hit the second of two free throws with 2:47 left in the second quarter. Allen’s layup on an assist from Alliyah Sands put the Rams back ahead 12 seconds later, and it was 30-19 after three quarters.
“We came out harder in the second half and played better defense,” Allen said. “That was why we were able to win by more than two points this time. We’re getting better and better as the season goes on.”
Miranda Hinton added 11 points for Cleveland.
Khadijah Neal and Cyarra Pierson led the Pirates with 10 points each.
“We weren’t playing with our hips down low to the ground in the first half, and that’s why they were beating us off the dribble,” Cleveland coach Chris Danehower said. “I thought Corinth did a good job with our original zone, but when we switched to our normal 2-3 it frustrated them a lot. Our ability to switch up defenses was critical.”
Cleveland had won the teams’ first meeting 52-50 on Jan. 17 in Wendell.
“Both teams changed some things up in the second half,” Corinth Holders coach Brandy Smith said. “We wanted to get to the free-throw line. We got there, but when you miss 17 free throws it makes a big difference in a 10-point game. And we had too many turnovers.”