By JONATHAN GREENE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
From the opening tip until the final buzzer, Princeton left everything they had on the floor.
The Tigers took a slim lead into the break, but Greenbrier East pulled away in third quarter before holding Princeton off late for a 65-58 victory Wednesday night in the Region III, Section 2 semifinals at the Brushfork Armory.
“Two great teams – the twos teams really battled,” Greenbrier East head coach Jim Justice said. “Neither team probably at their best. Princeton got behind and had to foul a lot. We ended up shooting a lot of foul shots and converted on the foul shots.
“They’re a great team. It’s a crying a shame when a team like this has to lose. It doesn’t matter who it is – us, Woodrow or Princeton. It’s a crying shame.”
The Tigers (17-6) led 26-24 at the break, but were limited to three points in the third quarter by the Spartans (20-3). Greenbrier East outscored Princeton 41-32 and went 23-of-31 from the line in the second half.
“It was two titans battling it out,” Princeton head coach Ernie Gilliard said. “They had a little more zip, a little more energy than we did. They executed a little better than we did offensively. As a result, they get to advance and we’ll have to wait until next year.”
Both teams were evenly matched to begin the game. The game was tied 13-13 after one.
Hunter Walters hit a three as he scored seven points for the Tigers in the opening period. Owen Browning and Bryce Woodlift hit three’s to keep the Spartans in the game.
Greenbrier East opened a six-point advantage to start the second quarter behind three’s from Tyler Canterbury and Rondale Watson. Watson also added two free throws.
Princeton began to battle back thanks to two free throws and jumper by Ryan Meadows. Derek Jennell hit a three with 1:09 left to make it 26-24. The Spartans held the ball for nearly the final minute, but could not get a good look before the buzzer.
“We used a little half-court pressure defense there,” Gilliard said. “It was something to get us going, one. Two, it forced them to slow down and stop measuring us so well. They were beginning to spread the floor on us and get their shooters spaced out. We felt like we had to force the tempo a little bit to get them out of their rhythm.”
The game changed in the third quarter as the Tigers only points came off a free throw and corner jumper from Kyle Caron.
Obi Romeo threw down two dunks to reenergize Greenbrier East. He added a tip-in late and Watson hit two free throws after getting fouled at the buzzer making it 36-29.
“We really got after them at halftime to step up and play some defense,” Justice said. “They did a nice job. Three points. To hold this team to three points [in the third quarter] is unbelievable.”
Princeton senior Hunter Walters said, “They didn’t do as much as we didn’t do. We didn’t do something of the little things like rebounding and playing solid defense. They [Greenbrier East] definitely made a lot more shots this time than they had before.”
The Spartans began to pull away in the fourth quarter building a 12-point lead. Watson scored 10 points in the first few minutes of the quarter as both teams were getting up-and-down the court.
Princeton began fouling with just over two minutes left in the game. Greenbrier East made 74.2 percent of their attempts in the second half, but missed several giving the Tigers an opening late.
Meadows drained two free throws and hit a three then Jennelle converted 2-of-3 from the line. Jennelle followed with a three and Aaron Ferguson added a putback to make it 60-54.
Watson hit four straight free throws while Princeton could not connect on any of their attempts from deep.
Meadows had a lay-in and Walters threw down a dunk to close out the game.
“We just wanted to make the game last as long as we could,” Meadows said. “We wanted to go to Charleston, but we obviously came up short. To be out there on the court with all my teammates, it’s truly as blessing. I thank God for it. I thank God for the four years he blessed me with here.”
Meadows finished with 26 points. Walters had 15 points and Jennelle chipped in with 10. The Tigers hit just 4-of-21 three point attempts. They shot 35.7 percent from the floor.
Watson and Romeo each had double-doubles to pace the Spartans. Watson had 29 points and 12 boards while Romeo grabbed 18 boards and put in 11 points. Woodliff added 12 points before fouling out.
“He played within himself,” Justice said of Watson. “Rondale has been having games, honestly, were he’s tries to do stuff way, way beyond maybe even his abilities. It turns into a mess. He did that against South Charleston. Tonight, he played really within himself and did a great job.”
Greenbrier East advances to the Sectional championship game against the winner of Wednesday’s nightcap between Woodrow Wilson and Shady Spring.
Princeton graduates eight seniors – Meadows, Hunter, Jennelle, Caron, Lamont Lee, David Rogers, Joseph Mills and Storm McPherson.
“For those seniors, I don’t know if there are any words to describe them,” Gilliard said. “I love them. I really feel for them that it had to end this way tonight. As we told the seniors, they have set the standard. Princeton had fallen off for a number of years and we’re just trying to reestablish the pride in the program.
“They’ve been very crucial in the development of that. I thank them from the bottom of my heart. They’ll be irreplaceable. I really wish that there was a different end to this story.”
Ryan Meadows 26, Derek Jennelle 10, Hunter Walters 15, Kyle Caron 3, Aaron Ferguson 2, Ryan Rogers 0, Storm McPherson 0, Zen Clements 2.. Totals- 20-56 4-21 58.
GREENBRIER EAST (20-3)
Tyler Canterbury 9, Maurkese Tripplett 0, Obi Romeo 11, Rondale Watson 29, Bryce Woodliff 12, Owen Browning 3, Evan Ramsey 1, Deante Erskine 0, Dereck Weiford 0. Totals- 17-48 27-36 65.
Princeton...............................13 13 3 29 – 58
Greenbrier East.....................13 11 12 29 – 65
3 pt field goals: PRI 4 (Jennelle 2, Meadows, Walters), GE 4 (Canterbury, Watson, Woodliff,Browning). Fouled out: PRI, Jennelle, Clements; GE, Woodliff.