WENDELL — Smithfield-Selma is right where it wanted to be when the season started, finally.
The Spartans claimed third place outright and likely the accompanying final boys basketball state playoff berth with a 51-47 victory over Two Rivers 3A Conference rival Corinth Holders Monday night.
Smithfield-Selma will make its first boys basketball playoff appearance since 2002 this week. If a lower seeded team had won the league tournament, it would have bumped SSS out of the playoffs.
“Six games ago we made some changes,” said Smithfield-Selma coach James Robinson. “We sat some guys, made some changes and got things back on track. We knew we had to win four out of our last six games to reach our goal of the playoffs and we did it. It wasn’t the way you draw it up but we reached our goal.”
SSS trailed 24-22 at the half but held the Pirates, who would have claimed the third place spot in the league with a win, scoreless for a seven-and-a-half-minute stretch midway of the second half.
Robinson was quick to credit the work of assistant coach Matt Cuddington in the Spartans’ improvement on defense. “I’ve turned the defensive completely over to him,” Robinson said. “He’s basically our defensive coordinator and the guys have responded.”
Corinth Holders, which had rode the shooting of Jaylyn Neal (18 points) to a lead, slipped back into bad habits on the defensive end against the Spartans’ pressure.
“We talked about before the third quarter started that we wanted to take our first possession and set a tone,” said Corinth Holders coach Chris Davis. “We made two passes and took a bad shot. We set the tone, all right.
“We play like we’re 10 points down all the time, no matter the score and we’ve done it all season.”
The Spartans went ahead for good on a Tez Leach bucket with 4:02 to play in the third quarter. Tonio Mayo hit a 3-pointer a minute into the final period to boost the lead to 42-33. Zey Best scored on a Leach pass on Smithfield-Selma’s next possession to cap a 12-0 scoring run.
Best led SSS with 15 points on the night, while Ray Smith added 10.
“Zey Best was phenomenal,” Robinson said. “He doesn’t always want to play in the paint but he has to play inside for us to be at our best. And our guys did a good job of finding him in the paint.”
SSS didn’t score over the final 49.6 seconds of play but after Neal’s last 3-pointer of the night with 54 seconds left, which cut the lead to 50-47, the Pirates didn’t either.
Corinth Holders enters the post-season as one of those teams that must win the conference tournament in order to move on to the state playoffs.
The Pirates enter that quest with some confidence, despite the loss.
“I believe we can do this,” Davis said. “There isn’t a team in our conference that we didn’t play with or that we can’t beat. It’s going to take a great run. But we’ve played some really great teams in our non-conference schedule and it’s made us a very competitive team.”
Best: 919-524-8895; Twitter: @dclaybest