By TOM BONE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
The task, and the girls from Logan, were just too big for Princeton.
In their first state tournament game of their career, the senior-laden Princeton Tigerettes basketball team fought back from a 15-3 deficit to forge a halftime tie, but were unable to match up with the Logan Wildcats for the long haul on Thursday, losing 77-66 at the Charleston Civic Center.
Princeton ends its season 19-6, while Logan (16-9) will play top-seeded Spring Valley (23-3) in the Class AAA semifinal this evening in Charleston.
Princeton head coach Debbie Ball said, “The fact that we were down 14 points and able to come back speaks a lot for this team. I just feel like, sometimes your shots don't drop, and it happens, and their shots did.”
Ball said, “I guess, in the end, if you're a team that shoots the threes, and you're needing those threes and sometimes they don't make them, it changes the aspect of the whole game.”
“It was their day. It just wasn't our day.”
It was quite a day for Logan sophomore Shayla Gore, who finished with 36 points on 12-for-21 shooting from the field. The Wildcats made 56.5 percent of their floor shots overall.
Seniors led the way for Princeton in front of a large cheering section from Mercer County.
Marshall University signee McKenzie Akers and Hannah Preservati each scored 17 points. Akers grabbed three steals and dished out nine of Princeton's 19 assists. Jessica Inman scored 12 points and had four assists. Khadija Payne led the Tigerettes in rebounding, with 10 boards, and added six points and four assists. Marissa Mullins netted 10 points to go with two assists and three steals.
Princeton wound up 10 for 31 from three-point range and shot just 28.9 percent from the field overall.
Logan coach Kevin Gertz began his postgame talk with the media by saying, “We just beat a heck of a team. They've got McKenzie Akers, who is a top-notch player in the state and we held her to below her average. She got 17 points and it took her 30 shots to get there.”
In the early going, the Wildcats dominated inside and made five of their first seven field-goal attempts, taking an 11-3 lead and forcing a Princeton timeout. Two more quick baskets by Logan followed.
After starting the game 1 for 16 from the floor, the Tigerettes used the three-point shot to climb back into contention. Mullins hit three buckets, two of them from behind the arc, and Inman added a trey and two foul shots to bring Princeton within three, 19-16, after one period of play.
Gore, who scored nine points in the second quarter, sank a pair of free throws to increase Logan's lead to 23-18, but Payne scored back-to-back field goals to give the Tigerettes their first lead, 24-23, with 5:25 left before halftime, and Logan had to take a timeout.
The contest was tied four times in the second quarter. Gore's jumper with four seconds left produced a 34-34 tie, and Akers' heave from downtown did not find the net just before the halftime buzzer.
The third period included four more ties, the last one coming when Payne hit a jumper from the foul line to knot the game 49-49.
On Logan's next possession, Gore picked up her third foul when Akers drew a charging call, and Gore was sent to Gertz's bench. Mullins sank another jumper with two minutes left to give Princeton its final lead, 51-49, but the girls in white and blue could not capitalize after that.
Gore returned to the floor and scored the last five points of the period, while Princeton began a string of fruitless possessions. Seven times in a five-minute stretch, the Tigerettes' offense was one-and-done as Logan grabbed the defensive rebound. Two more Princeton drives ended on turnovers.
The Wildcats' emphasis on dominating the paint under the Princeton hoop, and making free throws, turned out to be keys.
Gertz said that before the game his top two points of emphasis for his team were to box out and get defensive boards. At halftime, he said he told his team, “What you don't understand is, we have 16 defensive rebounds, and they have 13 offensive rebounds, and most of that is from their guards.”
A three-pointer by Preservati brought Princeton back within three points, 57-54 with 7:20 to go in the game. Logan then began a lengthy procession to the free throw line. The Wildcats made only one more field goal in the contest, but were 15 for 26 at the stripe in the final period. In the final minutes, Princeton was forced to foul to stop the clock, and Logan padded its lead one point at a time.
The Tigerettes didn't stop trying. With about five minutes to go, Preservati and Logan's freshman center Monica Mitchell smashed into each other under the basket. Preservati was called for the foul, and remained face down on the court for a couple of minutes.
Akers stood close, talking to her senior classmate. Preservati finally rose to her feet and tried to take a place at the foul lane, but was sent to the bench — only to return near the game's conclusion.
Preservati said, “I got squashed a little bit. It kind of scared me.”
Mitchell wound up with 18 points, 16 rebounds, three assists and a steal. She said about playing Princeton, “It was rough, but they didn't really have anyone to match up with me. … I was really believing that this was our game, and we were going to win it.”
“I've always dreamed of playing in the state tournament, and we're finally here. We're just going to try to win it all.”
Inman stole the ball and drove the floor for a layup that produced a 70-64 score with 1:51 left. That basket, and her spot-on jumper with 24 seconds left, were the game's only field goals in the final two minutes.
Ashley Culicerto of Princeton snatched her team's 12th and final steal in the waning seconds. It was Logan's 19th turnover; Princeton had eight in the game.
Logan had 45 rebounds to Princeton's 44, but the Wildcats cleaned up 39 rebounds under the Tigerettes' basket, while Princeton had 25 offensive boards.
“Granted, Logan has a really good team, and Gore is a really good ball player,” Ball said. “We have always had trouble playing big teams, and when they go inside, we've had problems with that all year, but we managed, somehow, to pull them out.”
Akers said, “I think we were all kind of overwhelmed, by the atmosphere. We should be thankful that we got this far. … Even when we got down 14 points, we're a 'never-dying' team, so we knew we could get back into it.”
Ball said about her final words to this season's team, “I just told them in the locker room, they're a special group. They're a never-die team, and they've been that way since I've been coaching them.”
Mullins said, “I think we left it all on the floor.”
Preservati said, “I'm sad that we lost, but I'm glad that God gave me the opportunity to play with my teammates … .”
Akers said, “I hate for it to go out this way – but it has to end sometime.” She added, “I'll never forget playing here – but I'll never forget losing, either.”
—Contact Tom Bone
at Charleston Civic Center
Tothe 2-5 6-8 11, Toppings 3-3 0-0 6, Gore 12-21 9-16 36, Cline 1-2 0-0 3, Mitchell 8-13 2-5 18, Collins 0-1 1-2 1, Williamson 0-0 0-0 0, Ward 0-0 0-0 0, Napier 0-0 0-0 0, Kolovich 0-0 0-0 0, Adkins 0-0 0-0 0, Spry 0-0 0-0 0, Ka.Kirk 0-0 0-0 0, Kimler 0-0 2-2 2, Ke.Kirk 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 26-46 20-33 77.
Akers 6-30 4-8 17, Mullins 4-11 0-0 10, Payne 3-10 0-2 6, Preservati 6-13 0-0 17, Surface 0-4 2-2 2, Inman 4-12 2-2 12, Culicerto 0-1 0-0 0, Snow 0-0 0-0 0, Lambert 1-2 0-2 2, Hamm 0-0 0-0 0, Barker 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-83 8-16 66.
Logan..................................19 15 20 23 — 77
Princeton............................16 18 17 15 — 66
3-Point Goals—Logan 5-10 (Gore 3-5, Cline 1-2, Tothe 1-3), Princeton 10-31 (Preservati 5-10, Mullins 2-6, Inman 2-8, Akers 1-6, Lambert 0-1). Fouled Out—Akers, Mullins. Rebounds—Logan 45 (Mitchell 17), Princeton 44 (Payne 10). Assists—Logan 11 (Gore, Mitchell 3), Princeton 19 (Akers 9). Total Fouls—Logan 17, Princeton 20. A—na.�