FOUR OAKS — The inaugural Two Rivers 3A Conference girls basketball race has been one characterized by tough defense with points coming at a premium.
Thursday night in the conference semifinals, both South Johnston and Triton used same formula of punishing the opposition inside in order to advance to face each other in the championship game scheduled to again be played at the top seeded Trojans’ home court.
South Johnston ran its win streak to 19 games thanks to an almost Herculean performance from senior forward Alexis Massengill, who led the Trojans with 24 points and 18 rebounds en route to a 60-46 victory over fifth-seeded Corinth Holders.
Similarly for Triton, Tarica Worney paved the way for a chance at the tournament championship with 14 points and 14 rebounds as the Hawks surprised Cleveland 50-46 with a heavy dose of offense originating close to the basket.
Hawks find new route
After combining to shoot 6-of-32 from three-point range in the Hawks’ two defeats to Cleveland this season, Triton all but abandoned its outside shooting and focused its attention inside.
In the semifinal contest against the Rams, Triton attempted just five shots from beyond the arc the entire contest and instead turned to Worney and Brittany Smith for some closer attempts at the basket,
Smith converted three of four chances from point blank range in the opening quarter and Worney added six points in the paint herself in the second quarter to help the Hawks fly out to a 27-15 halftime advantage.
“In the first half, they were able to throw the ball inside to (Smith) and she was able to score a little bit,” Cleveland coach Chris Danehower said. “We hadn’t seen that from them as much so that was a good job on their part at doing that.”
While the Rams (10-14), who entered the tournament as the league’s No. 2 seed, struggled stopping the Hawks for scoring inside, Cleveland had a tough time connecting from three-point range and missed 10 of its first 12 attempts from long distance.
Triton’s lead ballooned to as many as 16 points early in the second half, but a Rams’ fourth quarter charge drew Cleveland to within 47-44 with 25 seconds to play.
Triton (11-13) converted two of four foul shots in the final seconds to hold off the Rams to advance to the title game.
“We made a run late but we just couldn’t finish about four or five plays that would have turned a seven point game down into a two or three point game,” said Danehower. “We probably just exerted so much energy just trying to get back.
“It was not our best night but the kids didn’t quit which has been indicative of the entire year.”
Brittany Preston scored all of her 10 points in the second half to lead Cleveland. Alliyah Sands added eight points while Miranda Hinton and Amber Scott both finished their night with seven points.
South Johnston continues its run
Despite a somewhat off-shooting night, South Johnston (20-4) also advanced to the championship game due, in large part, to the distinct advantage the Trojans held in rebounding in their matchup against Corinth Holders.
Massengill would not be stopped down low as she collected 24 points and 18 rebounds, eight of which were on the offensive glass.
Brittany Lawrence came off the bench and combined with Massengill to exert the Trojans’ dominance on the boards and mask a 2-17 shooting performance from behind the three-point line.
For the better part of three quarters, the Pirates stayed close to the Trojans, who went through conference play unscathed through the regular season, thanks to the hot shooting of Cyarra Pierson and Holly Price, both who finished the contest with 15 points.
“Something was missing in the first half; we couldn’t quite get into that groove,” South Johnston coach Ronda Langdon Johnson said of her team’s offensive struggles early on. “In the second half we looked better but we’ve got to bring it for four quarters.
“We know now we’ve got to bring it every night. I told them that everybody wants them right now because everybody wants to knock them off their undefeated roll.”
Anna Webster was the other Trojan who hit double figures with 10 points, while Emma Blackmon finished with nine.
Corinth Holders, who needed to win the conference tournament to make the state 3A playoffs, finished its year at 8-14.
Next season, the Pirates will return most everyone from this year’s club minus seniors Kris Neal and Cyarra Pierson.
Pierson, a four-year player for the Pirates, played at the guard position her first three years but was asked to transition to the forward position because of a season ending injury Neal suffered months ago.
“She basically from day one was one of the leaders on this team and has grown as a leader since she’s been here,” said Corinth Holders coach Brandy Smith, who commended Pierson for her willingness to change roles. “She’s been a jewel and I’ve definitely enjoyed coaching her for four years.”