South Johnston opened Greater Neuse 3-A Conference play on Friday with a pair of varsity basketball losses to visiting Johnston County rival Clayton.
South Johnston gave a strong effort and started hot, but Clayton took a 62-45 win in the girls game.
“I definitely think our defense was one of the best defensive games we’ve played this year,” said South Johnston girls coach Whitney Williams. “I think coming in knowing that Clayton was such a strong team, our offense pulled together. We did have a few moments where we couldn’t really break the press or get the passes through or run the play that we wanted based off of pressure. But I do think we did a good job defensively of holding certain players on their team.”
Senior center McKinley Sills paced the Trojans (3-8, 0-1 GNC) with 10 points.
“Any time we can get the ball inside, that’s creating not only the opportunity to shoot, but it’s also creating the opportunity to draw a foul,” Williams said. “I think just the more that we can feed her, the better off we’ll be.”
Kennedy Byrd and Kaylee Creech had seven points apiece. Paige Toler and Janay McDonald had six points apiece. Katon Blackmon had four points. Diamond Judkins and Nikki Lee had two points apiece. Jenna Brown had one point.
Freshman Darriona Howard had 22 points and senior Unique Best had 10 points to lead the Comets (11-3, 1-0).
More than half of Clayton’s points came from the free throw line, as a large disparity in fouls and free throws went in the Comets’ favor. South Johnston was called for 30 total fouls in the contest, resulting in Clayton going to the free throw line 52 times, making 32 of them (61.5 percent), led by 8-of-11 (72.7 percent) shooting from Howard and a perfect 6-for-6 from Best. Clayton was called for just 17 total fouls, leading to South going to the free throw line only 14 times, making four of them (28.6 percent).
At the end of a competitive first quarter, South Johnston held a 17-12 lead. But with the Trojans holding a 21-18 lead midway through the second, Clayton finished the quarter on a 16-6 run to lead 34-27 at halftime.
South struggled early in the third quarter as Clayton went on a 9-0 run to push the lead to double digits.
“That third quarter killed us,” Williams said. “We just had a slow start to that third quarter.”
South regrouped and continued to battle, but could not cut the lead back to single digits.
In spite of the loss, Williams was proud of South’s effort in the contest.
“I’m over the moon for my team right now,” Williams said. “I think this is one of the better games that we’ve played all year. We had players that stepped up tonight that maybe haven’t had as much playing time this year and had to step up because of other players in foul trouble. I think if we can give that same effort the rest of the year, we’ll have a good rest of the way.”
Despite multiple rallies, South Johnston could not overcome Clayton as the Comets took a 65-51 win in the boys game.
“I thought we played hard,” said South Johnston boys coach Brody Massengill. “No doubt we played hard. Both teams played their guts out. What a fun atmosphere and environment! This is what it’s all about. Two good teams playing. I just thought we could have made a little more of an adjustment in the first half and that was probably on me. Because in the second half, we got to sit down and talk a little bit and we did some things better offensively. We’ll be OK. We’ve just got to clean some things up.”
The Trojans (11-2, 0-1) were led by a 17-point effort from senior C.J. Ray.
Massengill praised the effort of senior Colby Norris, who scored eight points in the contest and had the unenviable task of guarding Clayton’s star player, junior B.J. Freeman.
“(Norris) is tough as nails,” Massengill said. “It’s not easy to tell him, ‘Your responsibility is to stop 23 over there.’ He’s willing to lay his body on the line all the time. He’s willing to do the things that people don’t like that don’t end up in the papers and stuff like that. The way he played the middle of the floor in the second half to get his teammates open and get the ball to them, it was awesome.”
Thomas Dees and Jeremiah McLean had nine points apiece. Dylan Bates had six points. Jonathan Watts had two points.
Freeman had 19 points, senior Mason Rusch had 15 points, senior Sha’kerr Howard had 12 points and junior Javonte Long had 10 points to lead the Comets (12-2, 1-0).
“The point guard for them (Rusch), that kid’s a great player,” Massengill said. “He kind of did some stuff to us in the second half where we couldn’t defend it and was making his free throws.”
While not as wide a disparity, just like in the girls game, the free throw line was in the Comets’ favor. Clayton shot 23-of-31 (74.2 percent) at the line, led by 10-of-12 (83.3 percent) shooting from Freeman and 9-of-12 (75 percent) shooting from Rusch. South was 7-of-11 (63.6 percent) at the line, led by 4-of-5 (80 percent) shooting from Ray.
“We’ve got to learn to play and keep people in front of us and play without fouling,” Massengill said. “We fouled a lot.”
Clayton started the game on a 10-2 run before South rallied with a 10-6 run to cut the lead to 16-12 at the end of the first quarter. But, despite Freeman sitting out the entire quarter with two fouls, Clayton went on a 13-6 run through the second quarter to lead 29-18 at halftime.
South went on a 15-5 run to start the third quarter, cutting the lead to just one, but could not overtake Clayton, which led 42-37 at the end of the third.
Clayton finished the game strong, outscoring South 23-14 in the fourth quarter to secure the win.
South Johnston is at home against nonconference foe Midway on Monday. Clayton continues conference play at Cleveland on Tuesday.
“We’ve just got to keep working,” Massengill said. “The effort’s there. We’ve just got to clean some things up. I’m not disappointed in our guys at all.”