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Second-half rally springboards Cleveland girls basketball past SSS

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CLAYTON — After trailing Smithfield-Selma by seven at the half, the Cleveland girls basketball team executed a big second-half comeback to take over the 3-A Greater Neuse River Conference matchup in the final minutes of regulation and capture a 48-43 victory before a home crowd on Friday night.

“It took a lot of effort and I thought we executed it well,” said freshman guard Brooklynn Waller, who scored 11 points.

Cleveland (6-11, 1-2) scored the first four points of the game, then allowed Smithfield-Selma (7-7, 0-2) to score 16 of the next 20 points to take a commanding lead midway through the second quarter. 

After a low-scoring first quarter that saw no field goals for the Rams, Cleveland had a much-improved late second quarter, but entered halftime down 22-17 after the Spartans’ Khaliyah Peacock and Kayla Robertson combined for 15 points in the first half. 

After what was a slow start offensively, Cleveland head coach Robby White took his team into the locker room focused on coming out strong in the third quarter — a particular area where the program has struggled lately. 

“The biggest thing we started talking about is that if your effort stays up, the ball will find its way into the basket,” White said. “We had a ton of shots that just bounced all over the rim (in the first half). We’ve had some games this season where we just weren’t able to get the ball in the basket.”

The halftime talk spurred a turn that third quarter. With its defense holding SSS to no baskets midway through the quarter, and Hannah Harrison scoring all seven points to start the third, Cleveland matched Smithfield-Selma blow for blow, finishing out the quarter on a 9-2 run to tie the game at 31 entering the final eight minutes.

“We just played really tough defense to stop them from driving and shooting open 3s,” Waller said of the efforts.

In the final quarter, a team effort — that encompassed the contributions of many — put the game away.

The Rams turned the pressure up a notch when play resumed, trapping the Spartans at halfcourt and forcing turnovers that led to easy baskets. A free throw and layup from Emma Loggans gave Cleveland its first lead since the start of the game, while three baskets in succession from senior Nanami Iwata a few minutes later put the Rams up six and got the crowd on its feet. 

Though Smithfield-Selma fought to the bitter end, those buckets from Iwata were the final blows. An encompassing defensive effort and six scorers — including Alisha Lucas with 13 points and Harrison with nine — helped Cleveland spurn a home victory when it needed one, ending what had been a two-game losing skid.

“We make a big emphasis on team-related ball; we run a lot of team-related plays and try to put people in the best position,” White said. “We went with a four-guard lineup there and it kind of sparked us against their press, so I thought that was big for us.”

Inspired efforts from My’shiah McQueen (13 points), Peacock (14 points) and Robertson (12 points) were not enough for the Spartans, who fell to 0-2 in conference play.

Smithfield-Selma (43)

Thaggard 2, McQueen 13, Peacock 14, Robertson 12, Forte 2.

Cleveland (48)

Nanami 7, Farmer 5, Harrison 9, Lucas 13, Waller 11, Loggans 3.

Score by quarters:

Smithfield-Selma 5 17 9 12 43

Cleveland 4 11 16 17 48