ERWIN — Triton swept the Two Rivers 3A Conference basketball tournament titles Friday night, setting up a convenient home-and-home scenario for their boys and girls teams when the playoffs start Monday night.
Triton’s boys survived a valiant upset effort by Smithfield-Selma, 69-68 in double-overtime. The Hawks, who won the regular-season title as well, carry a 18-5 mark into the state playoffs.
The Hawks’ win in the girls tournament final – a 54-49 decision over regular-season league champion South Johnston – earned the No. 2 seeding from the conference for playoff purposes, bumping Cleveland down to the No. 3 seed.
Triton’s boys trailed by 11 with 1:12 to play in the third quarter after a stellar scoring run by the Spartans (10-16). But a switch to a trapping, three-quarter-court press sparked the Hawks’ offense. A 3-pointer by senior captain Nick Parker actually put Triton up 57-55 with 3:36 to play in regulation, but SSS was able to answer, tying the score on two Raequan Smith free throws with 2:30 to play. Neither team could score through the rest of regulation play.
“We were lucky,” said Triton coach T.J. Morrison. “We’d like to be able to press more like that but we’re just not equipped to do it. We just had to find some kind of spark and that was it. SSS is a well-coached and talented squad.”
Neither team held more than a two point lead in the first overtime, which ended tied at 65 when the Hawks missed two free throws with 8.5 seconds to play, then SSS missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Triton (19-5) pushed ahead 69-65 with 2:36 to play in the second overtime on a steal and driving layup by D’Angelo Harris with 2:36 to play. Smith hit a 3-ball for SSS to get within 69-68 with 1:25 to play but the Spartans, who are headed to the playoffs for the first time since 2005, couldn’t score again.
Parker led the Hawks with 24 points. Smith led the Spartans with 23, while Quantez Leach had 18.
The Spartans entered the week needing to win their regular-season finale and advance as far as possible in the conference tournament to keep its streak of solid play going. Despite the loss Friday, they accomplished those goals.
“The past two years we’ve taken baby steps and we were taking baby steps early this season,” said SSS coach James Robinson. “We’ve finally started taking long steps in the past few weeks. Neither team deserved to lose this game. … But I feel like we’re going into the playoffs as a team that has a 10-16 record but one I hope a lot of people don’t want to play.”
Triton took advantage of the 3-point shooting of junior guard Kadizah Gaulden (21 points, including five 3-pointers) in the girls game. And the Hawks also played stellar defense in the second half, holding South Johnston without a field goal for an eight-minute, 24-second stretch from late in the third quarter until just 11 seconds remained in the game.
“We’ve had a problem closing out games, especially early in the season,” said Triton coach Keith Howard. “But we’ve gotten better at finishing games, especially on the defensive end. We found something that worked and stayed with it and it helped us a lot.”
South Johnston (20-5) saw its 19-game winning streak end and struggled at the free throw line, hitting just 11 of 23 at the line a night after hitting 86 percent of its free tosses.
Senior standout Alexis Massengill fouled out early in the fourth quarter, creating matchup issues for the Trojans. South did its best to try to find ways to get things clicking again and had some great individual efforts – like Emma Blackmon’s 16-rebound night – but it just wasn’t their night.
“We tried to go with a shorter lineup to create some things, get some steals,” said South coach Ronda Langdon Johnson. “We just couldn’t create the steals we needed.”
Anna Webster had 19 in the loss for South Johnston, which still enters the playoffs as a top eight or better seed.
“I know how disappointed the girls are (with the loss),” Langdon Johnson said. “But we’ve told them every game that every game you win, somebody wants to beat you more and more. That target’s gotten bigger and bigger with every win.
“We’ll just start a new season on Monday night.”
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