South Johnston boys basketball coach Brody Massengill summed it up perfectly in his post-game interview on Friday: “It was just one of them nights.”
South cruised to a 63-41 win over local rival Harnett Central in a clash of Trojans, thanks to a rapid start that saw the host Trojans jump out to a 22-5 lead in the first quarter and a 41-17 lead at halftime.
The celebrations for South began before the ball was even tipped, as senior forward C.J. Ray was honored after scoring his 1,000th career point earlier in the season in the win over Southern Lee. Ray was met by his teammates at the center of the court with a commemorative ball and joined by his family for photos.
“It felt great,” Ray said. “I really didn’t know that they were going to do that. I thought they were probably going to do it on Senior Night. But the other day in practice I came in and everybody was in there and coach was like, ‘They wanted to let you know that you scored 1,000 points.’ And everybody started jumping on me and everything. It felt good being with my team and sharing that moment. It feels great. But I’m not done yet.”
He certainly wasn’t done on Friday. Ray continued the stellar start to his senior campaign with a game-high 20 points, the last couple coming on a ferocious two-handed slam off a baseline out of bounds play that got a big rise out of the crowd.
Ray wasn’t the only one to bring the fans to their feet though. Senior shooting guard Thomas Dees had 14 points, with 9 of them coming in the first quarter to set the tone early.
“It actually takes a lot (of pressure) off,” Ray said of Dees’ hot shooting to start the game. “And I like seeing him score, because I don’t want to be the only one scoring. I do like to score, but I want to see my teammates score.”
Dees wasn’t the only teammate to step up. Senior Cole Winborne came off the bench with 8 points, all of them in a short stretch in the second quarter to put South on an 8-0 run. Senior center Colby Norris added 8 points, Austin Denning had 5 points, Jeremiah McLean had 4 points and Dylan Bates and Jonathan Watts each had 2 points.
“We definitely came out ready to play,” Ray said. “We were aggressive. We hit shots. We hit a lot of shots. In the locker room, we talked about it. We talked about just giving it our all.”
Like Massengill said, it was just “one of them” nights — the kind of night where everything went right for South and everything went wrong for Central.
“I told them, ‘Boys, we might want to thank the gods for that one tonight,’” Massengill said after his team played its best game of the season, on a night when Central had its worst. “I’ve sat right where (Central coach) Will (Gage)’s at, where you’re trying to do so many different things and it’s just not working and the other team’s just playing well. We shared the ball unbelievably and we just started hitting shots. Again, defensively, I thought we really played well. Probably the thing I’m the most proud of is the defense we’ve been playing.”
That defense has served South well this season, as they’ve held opponents to 50 points or less in all five games.
It looked like that standard might have been tested coming into Friday, as Central came in averaging 68.3 points per game, led by senior guard Anthony Tomlinson who was averaging 24.2 points per game. But South held Central to just 5 in the first quarter and 17 in the first half, and held Tomlinson to just 5 points, with 3 of those coming towards the end of the fourth quarter.
“That’s what we try to focus on, is playing good, solid help defense,” Massengill said. “I think you saw a couple times where they tried to set some ball screens for him at the top of the key, and every time as soon as he got the ball screen we had someone stepping up, trying to make him take a tough shot. That’s the way we try to play, with good team defense. It’s working out pretty well right now.”
If there were any bright spots at all for Central, one was the play of senior big man Justin Perkins, who finished with a team-high 18 points and showed constant hustle.
It’s also worth noting that after South blitzed Central in the first half, Central was able to hang with South in the second half, winning the third quarter 10-8 and tying the fourth 14-14. But the visiting Trojans never went on one of their patented runs, like they did in their earlier losses to Overhills (a 26-12 run in the third quarter got them back in the game after trailing by 11 at half) and Cleveland (a 10-0 run in the fourth quarter made it a 4-point game with less than two minutes to play).
Central (4-3) will have to bounce back quickly as its next game is on the road at East Wake (3-2) on Monday. Meanwhile, South (5-0) will get a day’s rest before hosting local rival Western Harnett (1-5 prior to Monday’s game against Cleveland) on Tuesday. South won the earlier meeting 59-50 at Western.