CLAYTON — No matter the result, it was guaranteed to be an historic night for Johnston County sports.
No. 12 seed Cleveland was playing in the state boys’ basketball playoffs for the first time, hosting No. 21 seed, county and new Two Rivers Conference rival Smithfield-Selma in their fourth meeting this season. It was believed to be the first time two Johnston County schools had ever faced off in a state boys’ basketball playoff game. Cleveland is in its fourth year as a school and SSS hadn’t been in the tournament since 2005.
Their first three meetings had all been determined in the final minute, but this one wasn’t close.
Bobby Stenborg finished with 24 points and eight rebounds as the Rams dominated from start to finish, rolling to a 60-37 victory over the tired Spartans.
Cleveland (14-11) advanced to Wednesday’s second-round game at No. 5 seed West Brunswick. SSS (10-17) is done after its best season in a very long time.
Chase Jackson added 12 points for the Rams, including 10-for-10 from the free-throw line.
“Defensively we didn’t give them many second-chance shots,” Cleveland coach John Jacobs said. “We didn’t get behind, so we could do what we wanted to on defense and keep mixing it up. I know how we play defense, and I always tell them if we play good defense anything can happen. And (SSS) didn’t shoot very well.
“We were talking about our first time in the playoffs and a chance to get our first win. We were playing a team we knew and we knew we could either win or lose. It’s a big game.”
Jeffrey David had 12 points and Raequan Smith 10 for SSS.
The teams had split a pair of two-point home-court victories during the regular season before the Spartans prevailed 63-59 in the semifinals of the conference tournament on Thursday night.
SSS, which fell 69-68 to the home team in the Two Rivers tournament championship game Friday night at Triton, was playing its 11th game in 21 days.
“I honestly thought we had nothing left in the tank,” SSS coach James Robinson said. “I thought Friday night determined tonight’s game. We were so exhausted mentally. When we got to the gym Saturday I could just tell.
“We didn’t have any energy left. We worked so hard to get here the last 10 games of the year (winning six, with three of the losses by a combined four points) we just didn’t have anything left. Our goals were to win the conference championship and make the playoffs. We made the playoffs, but it just wasn’t pretty.”
Cleveland scored the last eight points of the first period to lead 14-7 and then never looked back, stretching the margin to 34-16 at halftime.
In a two-minute stretch early in the second Stenborg scored seven straight Ram points including a three-point play, a block and a steal, helping stretch the lead from 16-10 to 23-12.
“I just try to go out and play hard,” the junior Stenborg said. “We came out with a lot more intensity tonight. We kind of had a chip on our shoulder after losing to them in the conference tournament and we were really ready to play tonight.
“We didn’t want to go out with a first-round loss. We want to go as far as we can.”
Jackson helped keep the Spartans at bay in the fourth quarter, going 8-for-8 from the line in the final period.
“This game meant a lot to us,” the senior guard Jackson said. “It was a big win. We played hard and got the win. We knew we had to pick up the defensive intensity tonight and that’s what we did.”
SSS had six seniors on the team but only one had been with the program four years, according to Robinson. David is a junior and Smith a sophomore.
“We could have had a better season, but we started off slow,” Smith said. “But in critical games we stepped up. This season was a stepping stone. We can build on this and be better next year.”