FOUR OAKS — To South Johnston girls basketball coach Ronda Langdon Johnson, Monday’s Two Rivers 3A Conference regular-season finale with county rival Cleveland may have been the ugliest game her team has played all season.
But the end result was beautiful to behold, as the Trojans withstood their own inconsistencies and a late-game perimeter barrage by the Rams for a 58-53 overtime victory.
The win gave South Johnston (19-4), which had already clinched the regular season title, an unblemished record of 10-0 in league play. It was the Trojans’ 18th straight victory.
“I have never known the feeling,” Langdon Johnson said. “The girls have wanted to be conference champions for such a long time. When we started winning games, they just got more confidence in themselves.”
Among the impressive throng on hand to witness the accomplishment, as well as celebrate Senior Night, were several members of the 1996 Trojans, the last girls team at the school to win a regular season basketball title.
“I’m so happy they were here to see this,” Langdon Johnson said. “I’m just a little disappointed we didn’t play as well in front of them as we have been playing.”
But credit should go to the Rams (10-13, 7-3) who utilized an aggressive 2-3 zone which gave the Trojans fits most of the night, including droughts of six minutes, 15 seconds and five minutes in the middle portions of the contest.
“We didn’t penetrate like we normally do,” Langdon Johnson said. “And we made a lot of mistakes, turnovers which hurt us as well.”
When the Rams were frustrating the Trojans with their defense, they turned to a sizzling perimeter game on offense, draining 10 3-pointers, including four in the fourth quarter to force the overtime.
Cleveland had used the 3-pointer in the third quarter, rallying from a 20-13 halftime deficit to take a 24-22 lead.
Courtney McGregor and Myrayna Watkins wrapped 3s around a bucket by Skyler Allen to pull within 22-21, and took their first lead since the opening minutes on a lay-up by Allen.
South Johnston, mired in that five-minute scoring drought to open the second half, responded to the run behind Anna Webster.
Webster, who led all scorers with 22 points, drained a 3-pointer to reclaim the lead, and then hit a follow shot from the right baseline, pushing the margin to 27-24.
Brittany Preston’s 3-pointer drew Cleveland even with 26 seconds left in the period, but a basket by South restored a two-point edge entering the fourth period.
Then the fireworks began.
Behind Webster, South pulled out to an early five point fourth-quarter lead, only to see the long-range assault begin, with McGregor raining in a pair of 3s to keep Cleveland close at 37-34,
Watkins buried a 3 to draw Cleveland even at 39 and Alliyah Sands added a trey for a 42-39 Rams cushion with 1:27 left in regulation.
Webster and Sands traded perimeter jumpers for a 44-41 Cleveland lead, but McKinley Johnson once again evened with a rainbow 3.
Free throws pushed South ahead by three, but Preston hit a 3-pointer with 4.3 seconds left to force overtime, then nailed another at the outset of the extra period for Cleveland’s final lead of the night.
“I haven’t seen them (Rams) shoot like that, and I know our defense was trying anything to stop them,” Langdon Johnson said. “It didn’t matter if we were playing zone or man-to-man.
“They (Rams) probably played their best game of the year.”
But the Trojans put together a 9-0 run on a follow by Emma Blackman, free throws by McLamb and Alexis Massengill, and a bucket and 3-pointer, also by Webster.
Cleveland had one last gasp, with Preston burying a 3, but Webster, who tallied the final eight points for the Trojans, sealed the outcome with a pair of free throws.
Johnson finished with 10 points for South, while Preston, McGregor and Watkins each had 12 for Cleveland.