By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
How much fun was Princeton’s thrilling 77-75 double overtime win over Winfield on Saturday afternoon?
For the fans — and this sports reporter — it was a great game to watch. It was the fifth of six basketball games covered in a span of three days by me, and it never gets old. (The sixth game wasn’t bad either, a 58-55 win by the Tazewell girls over Graham on a 3 at the buzzer).
For the players it was definitely a great time.
“Overall it was a good win,” said Princeton junior Aaron Ferguson, who exploded for a monster game, scoring 43 points and pulling down 22 rebounds. “Everybody did their role today, it was a really good win for us. I really enjoyed it, it was a fun game.
For the coaches ... it would be more fun if there wasn’t so much on the line.
“Up to the first overtime,” said Princeton head coach Ernie Gilliard, with a smile. “The second overtime it was a little fresh, a little tension on the coach, but we are excited for the win and extremely happy and hopefully we can continue to get better.”
There were smiles on Princeton’s side, and frowns for Winfield head coach Pat McGinnis, who couldn’t complain too much, other than the final result.
“I have coached for a long time,” McGinnis said. “I am not nervous, I don’t really get nervous, but it is exciting and fun. It is a lot more fun when you win than when you lose.”
Definitely. Despite the loss, McGinnis has a respect for Gilliard and Princeton that made the final result a little easier to take.
“I like Coach Gilliard, he is a nice guy,” McGinnis said. “There are certain people that maybe you get a little bit more upset about if you lose to, but he is a fine guy and I happy for him.
“We would have liked to have done a better job against him.”
Princeton and Winfield had been scheduled to play on Friday night, but wintry weather forced it to be moved to Saturday afternoon.
It was worth the wait for the Tigers, which improved to 3-3 after dropping its first three games of the season. This came against a talented club that entered with a 5-1 mark, with that lone loss being by two points.
“They are a really good team. I think we are finally finding our pieces and I think we will end up being a good team,” said Princeton junior point guard Jay Palmer, who hit the game-winning basket with 1.5 seconds left in the second overtime.
Princeton dominated inside, with the 6-foot-7 Ferguson and 6-4 Zen Clements — who had 18 points — combining for 61 points and 27 rebounds.
“If they keep playing like that we will be a great team,” Palmer said.
Keep that up and watch out for the Tigers. Just ask McGinnis, whose Generals defeated Wheeling Park at the Hoops Classic in Charleston last month, but struggled with its a lack of size. Gilliard was there, noticed those issues and the Tigers took advantage of it all game long.
“We had a nice win against Wheeling Park, but every night is tough with the kind of team we have got,” said McGinnis, whose club did make 11 3s against the Tigers. “Our kids are showing a lot of effort and everything, but size is what it is.
“You can’t coach 6’7, it is there, so hats off to them. They played a good game and pulled it out, but we will learn from it and try to get better.”
Princeton has done the same since starting the season with an 0-3 record, including a two-point loss to Shady Spring. After losing nine seniors off last year’s talented team, including Ryan Meadows and Hunter Walters, many observers expected the Tigers to struggle on the court.
Ferguson has used those opinions as motivation.
“Definitely,” Ferguson said. “We hear all about how we lost Hunter and Ryan and all that. We just come to practice and keep on working hard every day.”
Winfield actually jumped out early on the Tigers, taking a 38-31 lead at the break. Princeton switched defenses and rallied back, and had a three-point lead in the final seconds of the first overtime, but Zach Fisher canned a 3 to force another extra period.
The Tigers remained positive even when that ball swished through the net.
“I never think I am going to lose,” Palmer said. “I am always ready for competition and I am always ready to do my best to lead my team. That is an extra four minutes to get a win, that is the way I think about it.”
While Princeton dominated inside, Winfield canned 11 3s in the game, putting four players in double figures, led by John Bellomy with 23.
Palmer actually made the game-winning shot when the defense swallowed up Ferguson, leaving the quarterback of the Princeton football team the opportunity to drive into the lane and make the off-balanced jumper.
“As a quarterback I am the general on the field and it translates over to the basketball court and it is basically the same thing,” Palmer said. “You have just got to be a leader.”
Looking at a loss in a positive manner is never easy for a coach, but McGinnis admitted to enjoying these opportunities that might soon be over for him.
“I have my share of winners at the buzzer, that was great shot that Fisher made with a 3 to put us into (second) overtime,” McGinnis said. “It is fun, I am not going to coach very much longer.
“This might even be my last year, I have done it for a quite a while...Yeah, it is exciting every time you go out and play somebody new. It is fun and exciting.”
It was a typical game in the Mountain State Athletic Conference, which is a talent-laden Class AAA league that provides a challenge every night.
Just ask the coaches.
“We will have to go home and go back to the drawing board,” McGinnis said. “We play three games next week so we have got to be ready. It doesn’t get any easier. In this conference, it is tough every night.”
Gilliard would agree. All his Tigers have to do this week is travel to Nitro on Tuesday, host Cabell Midland two nights later, and then visit Huntington on Saturday.
Ouch. No wonder beating Winfield was a big deal for the Tigers.
“It is huge for us in terms of the team that we felt like we could be in terms of getting ready for the conference,” Gilliard said. “They are very good basketball team, they have beat some good teams so hopefully we won’t be satisfied. We will continue to build on this and come back to work on Monday.”
Not a problem. These Tigers know no other way.
“As long as we can just stay focused on our goals and continue working like we are working and get better day by day,” Palmer said, “I think we will be a better team.”
No matter what the schedule is ahead.
“We have got our work cut out for us,” Gilliard said. “There is never an easy game in our league, never.”
Brian Woodson is sports editor for the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. Contact him at email@example.com.