Two days, two memorable victories and one huge upward step for the Beddingfield Bruins in the Eastern Plains 2A Conference boys basketball standings.
Just 24 hours after an impressive road conquest at defending state champion Farmville Central, the Bruins travailed a distinctly different path during Wednesday’s home contest against North Johnston – but still managed to come away with an important league decision.
It won’t be remembered as Beddingfield’s most fetching performance of the season as the Bruins gave up a late lead in regulation before rallying in the closing minute of overtime to slide past the pesky Panthers by a 69-68 margin.
“It is always good to get a win, even when you don’t play like you are capable of,” said Beddingfield first-year head coach Joseph Dvozenja, who saw his club improve to 12-6 overall while maintaining first place outright in the EPC at 5-0. “I told our guys coming in that North Johnston was disciplined and well-coached, and that we needed to be ready.”
North Johnston fell to 6-10 and 1-4 despite forcing an extra session courtesy of a score-tying trey from Rakim Stancil with two seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
The girls game was also tight as coach Jay Poole’s Panthers held off a late Beddingfield challenge to claim a 49-43 victory – and remain in a second-place tie in the EPC at 3-2. North Johnston is also 13-3 overall and enjoying its best season since 2012.
Beddingfield, a young club loaded with long-term potential, slipped to 6-12 and 0-5. The hard-luck Bruins have dropped five games this season by six points or less and are currently in the sixth and final position in the league.
“When a team like Beddingfield is (in last place in the EPC), that pretty much shows you the type of conference we have,” Poole said. “Top to bottom, I think it is one of the best (2A) conferences in the state. You won’t find too many conferences where the No. 6 team can beat the No. 1 team on any given night and so on.”
Fresh off the statement-game victory at Farmville Central, the Bruins seemed well on their way to cementing their status at the top of the league in the early portion of Wednesday’s game.
Fueled by the dynamic offensive duo of Tobias Cooper and Kenny Sims, Beddingfield didn’t trail in regulation after the early part of the first period.
The Bruins’ advantage was 33-27 at intermission, and Dvozenja’s squad would lead by as many as nine points in the second half -- but could never completely put away the Panthers.
North Johnston made a run over the closing four minutes when the Bruins decided to spread the court, without much success.
Still, Beddingfield looked to be in control when Sims canned a pair of freebies at the 20-second mark to give his team a 57-54 cushion.
Needing a trey to tie, North Johnston found Stancil, who buried a 3-pointer from beyond the right arc to send the game into overtime.
“It was a set play, and we got what we wanted,’’ said North Johnston second-year skipper Chris Batten. “That has actually been one of our favorite set plays the past two seasons.’’
The Panthers would build on their momentum in the extra session and led 65-62 after Stancil converted a free throw with 1:15 remaining.
But Cooper, a junior who poured in a career-high 25 points, nailed a trifecta to tie the score at the 52-second mark.
“I just threw it up and prayed,’’ Cooper said.
Beddingfield’s full-court pressure defense then forced a steal courtesy of Noah Ivery, who put the Bruiins ahead for good with a driving basket with 29 second later.
Following an in-and-out floater from Stancil, Cooper sealed the tough victory for Beddingfield with a pair of free throws.
“We are just trying to stay on track to a conference championship,’’ Cooper said. “(North Johnston) scared us a bit -- they played a good game. They had a lot of will. To me, there were times where I felt like they wanted it more than us.’’
Sims complemented Cooper with 18 points, while North Johnston, which continues to improve as the season progresses, received 16 points from Kameron Williams and 13 points from Stancil.
“It is a world of difference for us right now,’’ Batten said. “When we took over last year, we revamped everything. It has been a work in progress because we needed our guys to understand that we wanted to look inside first. The guys are starting to grasp what we need as a team.’’
Dvozenja, a former golfer at Barton College, has also gone through some adjustments after taking over the boys job in the off-season after spending 10 years as a girls assistant under the legendary Debra Pegram.
“The speed of the boys game is different, but it is still basketball,’’ Dvozenja said. “Coach Pegram taught me that every day has to bring some sort of competition. You play how you practice, so you need to work hard every day to improve. Coach Pegram always talks about how you might not have talent, but you can always play defense, hustle and rebound.
“Our goal is to win the conference championship and, if we do, we are going to remember every bit of it.’’
Batten also has long-term title aspirations, and he feels like the potential is there to be successful at North Johnston -- but not until a foundation of confidence is built for the program to stand out.
Despite Wednesday’s loss, Batten felt his team took a positive step in that direction against the league’s current leader.
“At halftime, I asked our guys who they felt the best team in the conference was,’’ Batten said. “There was a pause before (Williams) spoke up and said that we were. That is what I wanted to hear. I think our guys saw tonight that they can play with anybody in this conference.’’
It won’t take long for the rematch as the clubs will duel again Friday, this time at the NJHS Gymnasium in Kenly.
Poole has the Panthers trending upward in his seventh season on campus after a 14-year stint at Leesville Road. North Johnston has defeated the defending state champion (North Pitt), has 13 total wins and boasts two elite-level underclassmen in junior Tayanna Jones and sophomore Levossie Taylor.
But that isn’t good enough for the top spot in the grueling EPC. That honor is currently being held by SouthWest Edgecombe, which has yet to lose a conference game under the direction of Sandra Langley, who is considered one of the state’s all-time greatest girls basketball coaches.
“We have high expectations,’’ Poole said. “But we have six kids who have never played varsity basketball before, and we understand the challenges you are going to have in this league every night.’’
North Johnston received another test on Wednesday, but never trailed after a strong start. The Panthers were ahead 24-11 at intermission and led by as many as 15 points in the second half before Beddingfield made a fourth-quarter run that was sparked by slick junior guard Jayla Bullock.
Bullock scored the first 10 points of the final frame by herself, and North Johnston’s advantage had suddenly dwindled to 41-37.
But Taylor scored twice in transition before Mackenzie Gibson wrapped things up with a pair of free throws with eight seconds remaining for the game’s final points.
“We have very good communication on this team,’’ said Jones, whose 18 points Wednesday shared NJ scoring honors with Taylor. “We didn’t communicate as much last year, but we have changed that. We also have good ball movement. We are making shots and playing good defense with our arms extended. (Poole) told us things were going to be different this year, and that is what has happened. We are playing our game and playing to our pace.’’
Bullock was the game’s leading scorer with 21 points, including five trifectas. Teammate Makayla Everette, a freshman post, also reached double figures with 11 points.
“We are a very young team,’’ Pegram said. “But we are going to be OK. We have been right there in several games, but it came down to two or three possessions when we didn’t score.’’
With Langley around, Pegram isn’t the dean of conference girls basketball coaches, but she still has 27 years of experience -- all at Beddingfield. Pegram’s quality resume’ includes a 2006 state championship and a 2008 runner-up finish.
During her playing days at Farmville Central, Pegram was influenced by then-Jaguar skipper Hilda Worthington, who is a member of the NC High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame. Pegram went on to play basketball at Louisburg College under the legendary Sheilah Cotten.
“From that point I pretty much knew I wanted to coach,’’ Pegram said. “It is fun to see all of the players go off and experience success in life. I keep in touch with a lot of them and they will call me when they do something (special). Building those relationships is what makes (coaching) so much fun.’’
Like Pegram, Poole was shaped at an early age by his mentor -- former North Johnston girls coach David Bagwell.
When Poole was a student in Wake County, he was coached by Bagwell before the skipper moved on to Johnston County to lead the Panthers’ program for 24 successful seasons.
Tasked with finding his successor after his retirement, Bagwell first put in a call to Poole, who was coaching at Leesville Road.
“I really had no intention of leaving Leesville,’’ Poole said. “But when Coach Bagwell got in touch with me and asked me if I wanted to come to North Johnston, it was quite humbling. It was a hard decision, but I have no regrets. I liked Leesville, but I like North Johnston, too. It is a special place.’’
Bagwell has remained active as an assistant men’s basketball coach at Lenoir Community College in Kinston. His son, Bryan, is the head coach for the Lancers.