By Cam Huffman
Standing outside the visitors’ locker room contemplating what he had just witnessed, Princeton head coach Ernie Gilliard put Thursday night’s game into perfect perspective.
“They’re still Woodrow Wilson,” said the Tiger leader with a shake of his head. “Don’t be deceived by their record or the little slip they had. They’re still a great basketball team.”
The Class AAA No. 14 Flying Eagles sent that message with a 67-51 win over Class AAA No. 9 Princeton at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center in a showdown between Region III, Section 2 foes. The Flying Eagles faced a must-win in terms of sectional seeding, after falling to Greenbrier East earlier this month, and they got it as guards Donte Nabors and Andrew Johnson combined for 45 points to lead Beckley to its fourth straight victory.
“We lost three straight, and we got it in our heads that we weren’t losing anymore,” said Nabors, who finished with 25 points, including 17 in the second half. “We refuse to lose.”
The Flying Eagles (8-4) set the tone in the opening minutes. Nabors started the game with a 3-pointer from the corner on the first possession of the contest, sparking a 7-0 run. Princeton (11-4) clawed back, cutting the lead to 7-6, but the Tigers went cold from the perimeter, missing good looks that led to Woodrow runouts on the other end.
“What was painfully obvious was that our shooting was horrendous,” said Gilliard. “I’m not sure what the numbers were, but in the first half, we were probably lucky to shoot 19 percent. We couldn’t throw it in the ocean.
“What our kids need to learn to do, is when the perimeter game isn’t going well, take the ball to the basket. We have a real nice inside presence, and what we have to do is start using our inside guys.”
Beckley scored the final nine points of the opening frame and led 16-6 after eight minutes.
“Coach Brian Nabors told us before the game that we needed to jump out on them, because they hadn’t had that happen to them,” said Johnson, who finished with 20 points, including 13 in the second half. “I thought that was big for us, because they’re a really good team.”
Trailing 29-19 at halftime, as Woodrow failed to extend its lead as large as it probably could have, Princeton did finally turn to its inside game in the third quarter. Aaron Ferguson, the Tigers’ big sophomore post player, scored eight of his team-high 15 points in the third frame as Princeton opened with a 4-0 run to cut the lead down to six at 29-23.
Johnson, though, ended the surge with a 3-pointer from the top of the key, and the Flying Eagles were able to keep the Tigers at arm’s length, especially after Princeton point guard Ryan Meadows left the game with his fourth foul midway through the quarter. Meadows, who averages more than 20 points per game, finished with just 12.
Turning up the pressure, Woodrow kept Princeton from getting into its offense and led 46-35 after the third quarter.
Any chance of a Tiger comeback was ended when Nabors caught fire late, attacking the basket for 12 fourth-quarter points as the Woodrow lead swelled as large as 18 before the benches were cleared with a little more than 2 minutes to play.
“It meant a lot for us,” said Johnson. “We had a stretch where we lost three straight, and (Princeton) beat us down there last year. We felt like we needed to get some revenge. They were No. (9) in the state, and we felt like we needed to make a statement to the state that we should be there too.”
Head coach Ron Kidd, who watched his team create its own shots a little more often on offense and play Woodrow’s typical pressure defense, said his team is closer to playing the type of basketball that is expected from a Beckley team.
“We still can do some things better, but I’m happy to get a win,” he said. “There were still a lot of mistakes out there, and we have some work to do.
“Anytime you beat a sectional foe it’s big, and we have a lot of respect for Princeton. I think (our players have) got the attitude that they can’t lose, and they’re kind of playing like that.”
Woodrow’s next game will be at cross-town rival Shady Spring on Monday, while Princeton will host Riverside tonight.
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Ryan Meadows 4 3-6 12, Derek Jennelle 0 2-2 2, Hunter Walters 4 0-0 9, Kyle Caron 1 0-0 2, Aaron Ferguson 5 5-6 15, Zen Clements 4 2-3 10, Lamont Lee 0 1-2 1. Totals 18 13-19 51.
Woodrow Wilson (8-4)
Andrew Johnson 7 4-5 20, Nicholas Deems 2 0-0 4, Donte Nabors 10 3-4 25, Chase Hancock 2 8-8 13, Brent Osborne 1 0-0 3, Noah Hancock 1 0-0 2. Totals 23 15-17 67.
P 6 13 16 16 — 51
WW 1613 17 21 — 67
3-point goals — P: 2 (Meadows, Walters); WW: 6 (Johnson 2, Nabors 2, Chase Hancock, Brent Osborne). Fouled out — P: Walters; WW: None.