Princeton appeared to be on the way to a blowout loss midway of the second quarter against East Columbus Friday. The Bulldogs refused to let that happen, rallying to pull ahead in the third quarter.
The same fate appeared to be waiting with three minutes to go when the Gators went up by 11 points. Princeton battled back again, tying the score at 66 with 29 seconds to play.
Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, they couldn’t clear that last hurdle, falling 67-66 in the third round of the 1A girls basketball playoffs Friday night, finishing the season with a 16-10 record. East Columbus (19-5) moves into this week’s regional tournament in Fayetteville.
“We could have folded several times and we didn’t,” said Princeton coach Marty Gurganus. “That’s a credit to the character of these girls.”
Princeton trailed 66-57 with 1:21 to play but scored on its next four possessions – the biggest blow was Jacklyn Farrior’s 3-pointer to cut the lead to 66-64 with 32 seconds left – to tie the game on two Savanna Massengill free throws with 29 seconds to play.
Princeton’s trapping defense forced the fourth straight Gator turnover on the ensuing possession, getting a chance to take the lead.
“After the half, we just came out with our 2-2-1 press,” Gurganus said. “We can run it up, back or half (-court) to give it a different look. It worked well, created some steals and I thought we were just really close to coming up with a lot of steals.”
Massengill had a jump shot bounce out with 19.2 seconds left and East Columbus freshman Marlena McClure drew a foul with 9. 5 seconds to play. She made the second free throw for a 67-66 lead.
Princeton went back to Massengill, who finished with a game-high 33 points, on its next possession but her 12-footer missed the mark, going out of bounds off of an East Columbus player with 2.2 seconds left.
The Bulldogs tried to go back to Massengill on the inbounds pass but the Gators wouldn’t let her get open. That opened the lane for sophomore Kelsey Peedin who cut to the basket and caught the ball under pressure from two Gator players. Peedin was nearly under the basket when she caught the ball and flicked up a shot that she nearly had to shoot over her head. It bounced off of the rim and East Columbus escaped with the victory.
“I wanted us to use the time and take the last shot,” Gurganus said. “It didn’t work out that way. We wanted to get the ball to Savanna on the last inbound play but they saw that coming so we had to go with our second option. We got a shot; it just didn’t go in.
“It’s a tough way to end a great season. These girls have represented Princeton with so much class you hate to see it end. And East Columbus is a great team, played a great game.”
The Gators gave Princeton plenty of trouble with their trapping defense through the first two quarters of play, building a 24-16 halftime lead and a 33-22 lead early in the third quarter.
However, the Bulldogs started rolling soon after, scoring on nine of their next 10 possessions to go up 37-35 on a Charley Cox free throw. Cox finished with 12 points, including three on free throws at the end of the quarter when she drew a foul on a desperation shot. Those buckets put Princeton up 41-39 entering the final quarter.
The Gators found their shooting touch in the fourth quarter, quickly. East Columbus went 10-for-12 from the field in the final quarter, taking a 49-41 lead with a 10-0 run.
“We couldn’t sit back and let (Kayla Brown who had a team-high 17 points) shoot because she was their only true outside threat,” Gurganus said. “We had to make somebody else beat us and 42 (Charity Powell) and 54 (Marlena McClure) stepped up. It was a gamble we had to take to have a chance to win.”
Powell had nine of her 14 points in the fourth, while McClure had six points and a pair of assists.
“We withstood blow after blow after blow from them,” said East Columbus coach Jon Scharpenberg. “I was just really pleased with how our team reacted. We’ve had a lot of games that have never gotten this close this year and we dealt with the foul trouble.
“We go eight deep and what makes me really proud is that they all had something to contribute to this win tonight.”
The Bulldogs lose only two seniors to graduation, but they are two valuable players: co-captains Massengill and Tori Paul. Paul had six points in her final Bulldogs’ basketball game. Peedin added nine to the Princeton tally.
“When you’ve got players like Savanna and Tori leading your team, you just want to make it last as long as it possibly can,” Gurganus said. “That’s why losing in the playoffs is such a hard thing to take because you know it’s over. Those two are great leaders and a pleasure to coach. They just make you so proud to be associated with them.”