SHALLOTTE — Winning a playoff game at home is one thing; doing it on the road is another.
Cleveland’s boys learned that tough lesson Wednesday night, just two days after the Rams had claimed their first playoff victory in school history.
That triumph resulted in a match-up with a veteran West Brunswick squad, which pulled away from Cleveland after a tight first half for a 70-51 victory in the 3A playoffs.
The Rams trailed just 29-20 at the half but went more than 12 minutes without a made field goal from the midpoint of the second quarter until junior Bobby Stenborg drained a long 3-pointer at the end of the third quarter buzzer.
Stenborg’s shot turned what had grown into a 26-point Trojan advantage in just more than seven minutes of play into a 23-point hole. One still too deep for the Rams to escape.
“They are a really good team defensively and that started to show up in the second quarter,” said Cleveland coach John Jacobs. “They’re very physical and strong and you have to protect the ball at all times. I thought there were times we played soft with the ball and you can’t do that against a physically strong team.”
Early in the contest, Cleveland kept West Brunswick (18-7) off-balance with a mix of defensive approaches, which cut down on the Trojans’ shooting lanes.
“We’ve seen a little bit of everything this year,” said West coach Eric Davis. “We didn’t get off to a good start against the 3-2 (zone), but the 1-3-1, the 2-3 and the match up zone, I thought we handled that well.”
Defensively, the Trojans did a great job of forcing Cleveland to try to defend against pressure that started near half-court and was led by sophomore guard Saadiq Johnson.
“Saadiq (Johnson) does such a good job on the ball, against the other team’s point guard, which helps our entire defense,” Davis said. “He does a really good job with steals and deflections, which makes it tough for teams to get into their offense quickly.”
Cleveland didn’t hit a 3-pointer until Stenborg’s third-quarter buzzer-beater and hit just two on the night. Stenborg led the Rams with 14 points, while Chase Jackson added 10 and Sean Early came off of the bench with eight points.
The Trojans had plenty of scoring balance. Eleven players scored in the game, led by Gray Cheers’ 12 points and 11 from O.J. Hill.
The Rams finished the season 14-12 and lose only two seniors — guards Jackson and Alan Michael Hales (three points in his finale) — to graduation.
“Most of these kids have been with us for three years now,” Jacobs said. “We’ve got a lot of guys back so we just want to keep getting better. They know all the little things we have to do now. We’ve taken great strides after playing a tough non-conference schedule. We went through a stretch where we didn’t know how to react in tight games but got through that. Now we’ve just got to have a good summer of work and be ready to do more next season.”
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