For almost the entire first half on Tuesday night, Princeton held its own against the No. 4 team in Class AAA, Greenbrier East.
Then came a half-ending flurry by the Spartans, followed by a series of one-and-done Princeton possessions, and the visitors left the Ralph Ball Court with a 55-40 win.
Princeton (5-8) senior Ian Southcott hit a 3-pointer with 3:02 left in the first half to give the Tigers a 26-21 lead, only to have Greenbrier East’s Tyler Canterbury and Josh Tunstalle answer with treys of their own.
The Tigers took their final lead when Zen Clements darted to the hoop for a layup and a 28-27 advantage.
Under the basket, Greenbrier East playmaker Rondale Watson crumpled to the paint and play was halted. He was helped to the sideline, favoring his right leg.
Greenbrier East (12-3) head coach Jim Justice said, “Rondale tweaked his knee (Monday) in practice. We knew that was an issue, but I guess, trying to protect that knee, he may have hurt his hamstring.”
Princeton made only four more field goals in the game.
The Spartans scored the final seven points of the half, ending with center Obi Romeo’s dunk, and led 32-28 at the break.
Justice said, “You’ve got to deal with adversity, and to play without Rondale was a big-time blow. But our team stepped up and played really, really, really smart, the last 30 seconds of the half. ... We played nice defense, the rest of the game.”
The Spartans’ Ty Walker went into overdrive early in the third quarter, claiming six rebounds in the first three minutes. He ended the game with 12 boards.
Walker said, “I did the best I could to help our team out, knowing Rondale was down. ... We kept the tempo, and went back out there and just worked and battled for it.”
The matchup between the 6-foot-9 Romeo and Princeton’s 6-foot-8 center Aaron Ferguson was an entertaining spectacle. Romeo had 13 points, nine blocks, and a game-high 13 rebounds; Ferguson had 12 points and five boards.
Justice said, “Both those kids are nice kids and both of them played hard, and both of them battled.”
Romeo said, “First off is, we thank God for everything. (Ferguson) is a good player. I give him credit.”
Ferguson said, “It was a fun matchup, with somebody bigger than me. ... I knew it was going to be a tough matchup, but I knew if I just kept my body on him, I’d be all right.”
Princeton head coach Ernie Gilliard said, “I thought it was a classic matchup of two bigs. I thought Aaron did a great job for us tonight. However, I think if he has a little more patience in some of his offensive moves, he probably would even have a better night against Obi.”
Ferguson hit a jumper 14 seconds into the third quarter to cut Princeton’s deficit to 34-30, and Romeo immediately got a dunk on the other end. The Tigers then fell into a series of one-and-done possessions, as the Spartans cleared the rebounds.
“That’s when we sort of got out of rhythm,” Gilliard said. “We started settling for the jump shot. What we should have done was attack the basket.”
“When teams step their defensive game up, we still have to be deliberate, and still attack the basket.”
Each side scored five points in the third quarter. Greenbrier East chewed up the clock with a high weave on offense and painstakingly grew their lead.
Southcott’s fourth 3-pointer, with 4:03 left in the game, ended a nine-minute scoreless streak by Princeton. All of Southcott’s 12 points came on treys.
After that, Greenbrier East hit 9 of 11 free throws to pad their lead, with substitutes on the floor late in the game for both teams.
The Spartans went 23 for 37 at the foul line. Princeton made 2 of 7 free throw attempts.
Justice said Princeton was “well-coached. ... They’re young, and they’re learning, and they’ve got a really nice big guy. I think their coach is doing a really great job, I really do.”
Ferguson said, “We’ve got good shooters. Some of them weren’t falling tonight, but other than that, I know if I can’t get a penetration, I can kick it and my guard can get a shot.”
Gilliard said, “Basically, our plan was to play solid defense, locate their shooters, and make sure they had limited free looks. We had to make sure we cut off the dribble-penetration.”
“What we wanted to do is to execute our offense,” he said. “Tonight, for three quarters, our kids did a real good job of executing that. Basically, we created some one-on-one situations, some isolations.”
“What we want to do is to continue to improve, every time out,” Gilliard said.
Canterbury led the Spartans’ scoring with 15 points and Watson added 11.
The Tigers’ four-game week continues on Thursday when Woodrow Wilson visits the Ralph Ball Court. Princeton travels to St. Albans on Friday.
The Spartans return to Mercer County on Friday to play Bluefield, the last of four straight road games.
— Contact Tom Bone at firstname.lastname@example.org
At The Ralph Ball Court
Ty Walker 1 1-2 3, Rondale Watson 2 6-6 11, Isaiah Kinder 0 1-5 1, Josh Tunstalle 2 4-8 9, Tyler Canterbury 4 5-5 15, Austin Jerman 0 3-4 3, Obi Romeo 5 3-5 13. Totals 14 23-37 55.
Colton Fix 1 0-0 2, Ian Southcott 4 0-0 12, Jay Palmer 2 0-0 6, Zen Clements 3 0-2 6, Ashton Odell 1 0-0 2, Aaron Ferguson 5 2-5 12. Totals 16 2-7 40.
Greenbrier East...18 16 5 16 — 55
Princeton.............15 13 5 7 — 40
3-point goals — GE 4 (Watson 1, Tunstalle 1, Canterbury 2); P 6 (Southcott 4, Palmer 2). Fouled out — P, Palmer. Technical fouls — G, Watson; P, Palmer. Total fouls — G 14, P 25.