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PRINCETON — The Princeton girls basketball team survived a momentum-changing two-point third quarter to beat North Johnston, 43-37, on Friday night.
“They did what they had to do to win,” Princeton head coach Paula Wooten said. “An ugly win is better than a pretty loss, isn’t it?”
Both programs entered the rivalry contest at an undefeated 3-0 on the season. The energy was high and the crowd was into it, leaving no doubt about whether the in-county foes are still in a heated rivalry.
“Before this game even happened, before school, a week ago, people were talking about this game,” said Mackenzie Gibson, who led the Panthers with nine points. “So definitely a rivalry.”
With the home crowd backing it, it didn’t take long for the Bulldogs to take over early. When junior LeOnna Nelson knocked down a jumpshot to give Princeton an 8-6 initial lead, the team quickly lengthened out the advantage it would hold onto into the second half.
The Bulldogs got out to a lead by the hot hand of junior guard Meredith Wooten. Wooten, the daughter of the head coach, scored 10 points in the first half as the Bulldogs led by five at hafltime.
When play resumed, though, the home team struggled to find a basket. Over the next eight minutes, the Panthers outscored the Bulldogs 7-2. Wooten got into foul trouble early into the second half and had to come out. About the same time, North Johnston switched to man defense and the scoring dropped dramatically.
“They went man and we just didn’t make good choices with man,” Paula Wooten said. “Sometimes, the kids, they get nervous about playing against a man. They don’t see it a lot.”
Entering the fourth quarter, the teams were tied at 25. The Panthers found a way to reset the game with one more quarter left in regulation.
“We lost the first half by five and we were able to make it up,” North Johnston head coach Jay Poole said. “I basically told them, ‘All right, a whole new ballgame in the fourth.’ And then again, played it even in the fourth. I think you saw two teams who were pretty evenly matched and I think the fourth quarter is what got us.”
In the fourth quarter, that momentum swing the Panthers had earned did not lead the team toward victory. After an evenly-matched 10-point effort from both schools in the final quarter of regulation, the bitter rivals entered overtime tied at 35. The stout defense of Princeton, which would eventually turn the tides for good, made sure the Panthers would not steal away victory with a last-second shot.
“When we started pressing, that’s what got us back in the game,” Meredith Wooten said. “Speeding it up. We stayed on defense a lot of the game.”
The rest of the way, Princeton outscored North Johnston 8-2 to earn victory. When Meredith Wooten nailed the eventual game-winning jumpshot early into bonus basketball, the home crowd erupted, knowing the Bulldogs were in position to close out a rivalry win.
“We got down and things weren’t going our way and we could have easily given up...” Paula Wooten said. “But they did what they had to do to win.”
North Johnston will have an opportunity to exact revenge against the Bulldogs on Friday, when the two schools square off again in Kenly.
North Johnston (37)
Gibson 9, Gross 8, Pearce 9, Hines 4, Blue 7.
Wooten 17, Nelson 8, Braswell 8, Woodall 5, Tart 2, Radford 2, Klein 1.
Score by quarters:
NJ 8 10 7 10 2— 37
PHS 16 7 2 10 8 — 49