ERWIN — Top-seeded Triton and third-seeded Smithfield-Selma battled their way into the finals of the Two Rivers 3A Conference boys basketball tournament, earning hard-fought victories in the semifinals Thursday.
Smithfield-Selma topped second-seeded Cleveland 63-59 in the opening semifinal at Triton’s gym and the host Hawks defeated fifth-seeded South Johnston 51-45 in the second game.
Smithfield-Selma opened up a 22-9 first-quarter lead against Cleveland and was up by 15 points at 34-19 with 2:34 left in the first half, but the Rams scored the final nine points of the second quarter and used 21 points from junior Bobby Stenborg to stay close to the Spartans.
“Give them a lot of credit,” Smithfield-Selma coach James Robinson said. “There is a reason they say ‘survive and advance.’ Hats off to them because they played a heck of a ball game. I thought we were lucky to jump up and then survive.”
Cleveland (13-11) was playing without senior guard Chase Jackson, who was on the bench in street clothes after being suspended by Coach John Jacobs for a game.
“With Chase sitting on the bench, I thought it took them a while to start believing in themselves, but once they did it was kind of scary,” Robinson said.
Stenborg scored 15 points in the second half, wearing three jerseys in the process. Stenborg was scratched on his arm and got blood on his No. 24 jersey a couple of minutes into the third period. After the cut was covered, Stenborg put on Jackson’s No. 10. Then there was blood spotted on the back of that jersey early in the fourth quarter and Stenborg borrowed teammate Alex Raines’ No. 30.
Regardless of the number he was wearing, Stenborg kept the Rams (13-11) in the game with his drives to the basket. Isaiah Barnes added 11 points for the Rams.
Smithfield-Selma (10-15) countered with three double-figure scorers, getting 15 points from Zay Best (13 of them in the second half), 12 points from Raequan Smith and 11 from Jeff David.
The Spartans also did a good job on the offensive boards, grabbing rebounds and scoring on put-backs after missed shots.
“Our guys were able to bow their back,” Robinson said. “Sometimes our best offense is a missed shot. Tony Hobbs cleans up the basket. Zay has moments where he dominates the boards. I thought Quantez Leach (9 points) did a tremendous job of attacking the boards tonight. Jeff David played an excellent game.
“I can’t criticize us. We didn’t execute at times, but a lot of that was Cleveland.”
Smithfield-Selma was up by nine points with 1:08 remaining after a basket by Hobbs but the Rams got a pair of 3-pointers sandwiched around a driving basket by Stenborg to pull within 62-59 with 4.3 seconds remaining.
David made a free throw with two seconds left for the final margin and the Spartans were on to the finals, winners in five of their last seven games.
In the second game, South Johnston tried for its second straight upset after beating fourth-seeded Corinth Holders in the opening round of the tournament Wednesday.
The Trojans (11-14) used a barrage of 3-pointers to stay close to Triton (18-5), but the top-seeded Hawks scored the final five points of the third quarter to lead 36-31 going into the fourth period and did not trail the rest of the way.
“South Johnston always plays hard and is very disciplined,” Triton coach T.J. Morrison said. “They make it difficult. It’s a big rivalry game for us with them being so close and it’s always competitive.
“We’re very fortunate to come away with a win.”
South Johnston used a deliberate offense against Triton’s man-to-man, passing the ball around the perimeter and setting screens until one of its sharp-shooters got open for a 3-point attempt. The result was a low-scoring first half, which ended with Triton up 22-20.
“They force teams to play the way they want to play and that is why they are in the game,” Morrison said.
D’Angelo Harris led Triton with 15 points, driving the lane for several baskets, and Chris Eason had 11 points and also grabbed some key rebounds.
“D’Angelo handles the ball well,” Morrison said. “I was a little worried when he got his third foul (in the third quarter) that we might be in trouble. But he came back in the fourth quarter and played without getting a fourth or fifth.”
The three automatic playoff berths from the Two Rivers were settled when South Johnston’s bid for the tournament title ended. Triton, Cleveland and Smithfield-Selma will receive playoff slots but Trojans coach David Dewey was hopeful that his team could still get a wild-card playoff slot.
“We’re right in there with a group of teams,” Dewey said. “We’ll know on Saturday.”
The Trojans got 18 points from junior guard Alan Johnson, who made three 3-pointers, and 14 from senior wing player Will Holmes.
“They were forcing us to shoot 3s a little bit deeper than we are used to shooting them,” Dewey said. “I think we did fairly well with it. We could have gotten a little bit better shots, but they did a good job of switching (on defense) when we were coming out to the wing.”
Dewey’s Trojans are a young group, with just three seniors on the roster. Holmes is the only primary scorer that South Johnston will be losing.
“There were a couple of things we had to battle through this year,” Dewey said. “That was some sickness and a boiler exploded at the school and we had to play a game on the road that should have been at home. We had been on a roll and that kind of caught us off-guard.
“A lot of weird things happened. I think we overachieved. At the beginning of the season, if you had told we would have done this, I would have been happy. The kids played very well. They always play hard.”