WENDELL — Veteran Garner coach Eddie Gray is still mixing and matching the pieces in a young basketball team.
On Friday night, he found a winning combination and relied on a tried and true Trojans formula for success – defense and up-tempo offense – to score a come-from-behind 67-63 victory over East Wake in the Greater Neuse River 4A Conference opener for both teams.
“We have a very young basketball team and we don’t really have a post presence,” Gray said. “We ended up having to play with basically five guards out there to match up with them. It hurt us on the boards but we made up for it with timely steals.
“We switched up some defenses and the kids are starting to come together and learn the game of basketball.”
Underclassmen carried the scoring load and made some key plays down the stretch for Garner (3-3), which was playing only its second game with a roster that included players from the football team that advanced to the third round of the state playoffs.
Junior guards Julius Barnes and Darius Simmons had 18 and 17 points respectively and sophomore forward Jashaun Smith had 16.
“Darius Simmons had a real good night for us,” Gray said. “Between him and Julius (Barnes), the two little junior guards, I thought they were the difference.”
Garner trailed 22-12 after the first quarter but went on a 10-0 run to start the second quarter and the game stayed close the rest of the way.
East Wake (5-3), which got 23 points from junior forward Quincy Jackson and 12 from Nahjuwan Potts, was up 53-49 to start the final quarter.
Barnes sank a pair of 3-pointers around a basket by Jackson to tie the score at 55-55 and it was nip-and-tuck the rest of the way.
Garner grabbed a 64-63 lead with 33.7 seconds left on two free throws by Smith and then came up with big defensive plays on back-to-back East Wake possessions.
After Smith’s free throws, Simmons batted the ball away from an East Wake player and dove to the floor to grab the loose ball and hold on for a jump ball, with the possession going to Garner.
Simmons then made one of two free throws to put Garner up 65-63 with 15.6 seconds left.
East Wake called timeout and set up a play for Jackson, who dribbled down the right side of the court but had the ball stolen by Garner’s Kyreece Mills. A pass went upcourt to Barnes, who was fouled and sank a pair of free throws with one-tenth of a second left for the final margin.
“I was real proud of the way the kids hung in there,” Gray said. “We got some timely layups and free throws there at the end.”
Garner’s defensive pressure was the story of the game, a disappointed East Wake coach Darrin Stinson said.
“That was pretty much it,” Stinson said. “But I like the mix on this team and think we’ll be a contender in the league.”
At Garner, it’s a work in progress for Gray, who has won more than 400 games at Garner.
“All the guards that went into the game kind of complemented each other,” Gray said. “We are trying to get a rotation. I’ve never had a team this young in my career so I am trying to find out what we can do and how we match up.
“But that was a big win for us.”