Smithfield: Sports

Seniors step up for North Johnston

The North Johnston boys’ basketball team went into its senior night still looking for both its first win of the year in the Eastern Plains 2A Conference and also for a little bit of consistency.

A solid 32-minute team effort later and the Panthers had found both in a 48-42 win over Southwest Edgecombe Tuesday night.

Four seniors led the way and helped North Johnston protect a lead it held for much of the night.

Ben Howell led all scorers with 17 points; forward Jacob Cuddington was a force in the lane with seven rebounds and solid interior defense, C.J. Jackson helped the Panthers manage the Cougars’ array of full-court pressure and traps and Gurkirat Singh posted career highs in points and rebounds.

“We’ve been up and down,” North Johnston coach Derrick Johnson said. “We’ll have flashes where we will play well and then have flashes when we don’t. Tonight, I was just really happy with our seniors. All of our seniors contributed heavily to this win.”

The Panthers’ half-court defense was intent on limiting good looks from three-point range for their guests as the Cougars dropped half-a-dozen long distance shots in their eight-point victory earlier in the season.

Southwest Edgecombe (9-12 overall, 3-6 in conference) hit just one of eight attempts Tuesday night and that came in the final minute of the contest with the game in hand for North Johnston.

“Overall, I thought we played pretty smart,” Johnson said. “I thought our defense was aggressive. We were really trying to get out and contest shots and we did a decent job on the boards.”

After an even opening quarter of play, North Johnston (4-17, 1-8) built a nine-point lead by halftime as the Panthers limited the Cougars to just two field goals and a pair of free throws in the second quarter.

North Johnston stretched its lead to 15 points early in the third quarter after a three-point play from Singh but it was a pair of offensive put-backs later in the period that may have sealed the game for the Panthers.

Southwest Edgecombe went on a quick 8-0 run to cut the lead to seven points with less than two minutes to go in the third quarter.

Facing the Cougars’ full-court press for the first time all game, North Johnston managed to break the press on consecutive possessions and get to the rim.

On both occasions, however, the Panthers’ close-range attempts were off-target. Fortunately for the Panthers, Singh raced down the court on both misses and tipped the ball into the basket both times for four key points that stopped Southwest Edgecombe’s charge.

“It was huge because we really needed to score,” Johnson said of Singh’s offensive putbacks. “I thought we could have made the lay-ups but (Singh) didn’t give up on them and he hustled. It was huge for the momentum of the game to keep us ahead with a good working margin.”

Singh posted career highs in points (11) and rebounds (six) in addition to four blocked shots.

Southwest Edgecombe’s Demarquise Howard and Quantellus Norwood hit double-figures for the Cougars with 12 and 10 points, respectively.