CLAYTON — It took a couple of weeks to happen, but when John Jacobs got his first win as a head boys basketball coach it couldn’t have been much sweeter.
Kodi Whitley led a balanced effort with 12 points Friday night, lifting Cleveland to a 42-38 win over county rival West Johnston in the Rams’ raucous gym.
Cleveland, a member of the Eastern Carolina 3A Conference which has played an all-4A schedule so far, is 1-5 while Greater Neuse River 4A member West is 1-3 after its third straight loss.
“This feels really good,” said Jacobs, who had previously been the Rams’ JV coach and took over this season as the school has its first senior class. “We talked about it after we lost to Middle Creek Wednesday night, just keep working and keep working and get better every game.
“I like our intensity. Our defense is playing better, and we’re playing with a lot of heart.”
Senior Chris Sheppard, who is playing basketball for the first time in high school, led the Wildcats with 15 points.
“We came out with good energy,” West coach Kris Bennett said. “We haven’t always played well, but we’ve played hard in every game. When a couple of shots fall we get confident. But we’ve got a lot of young kids – we had 10 total starts from last year coming back and they’re learning a lot of new stuff. We’re executing well, but now we’ve got to learn to finish the play.”
Cleveland was in control from the outset, going up 5-0 and then 9-2 after the first period as Whitley scored five in the first eight minutes. The Rams were up 19-12 at the break.
The Wildcats caught fire in the third quarter, tying the score at 22-22 on Brandon Baucom’s 3-pointer with 3:31 left in the period.
West led 27-24 after three quarters after Sheppard scored the final four points of the period.
“I thought we came out kind of weak, but we got better as the game went on,” said Sheppard, who has played wide receiver and linebacker and is getting some college attention for football. “But we’re going to keep practicing hard. I think we can have a good season.”
Cleveland got control again with the first eight points of the fourth quarter, taking the lead for good at 28-27 on a Jesse Olmstead layup with 6:23 to go.
The Rams were up 38-29 on a Gilbert King layup with 1:56 left. West sliced the lead to 40-36 on a Sheppard layup with 33 seconds left, but King and Olmstead each hit one of two free throws over the next eight seconds and the Wildcats could get no closer than the final score.
“This one really felt good,” Whitley said. “This is a big rivalry. We only live a couple of miles down the road.
“I think we fell asleep on defense when they made their run, but we started playing lock-down defense after that and got a couple baskets back down at our end.”