PRINCETON — Princeton boys basketball coach Jeff Davis knew how big his team’s home contest against Carolina Conference 1A newcomer Neuse Charter was Thursday. And although the Bulldogs uncharacteristically turned the ball over 19 times, Princeton came away with a huge early conference win over a game Cougars team, 62-57.
“I felt like coming into tonight, they were the best team in our league,” Davis said of the Cougars. “So that’s a really big win for us.
“I never dreamed that we could have beat them with 19 turnovers.”
Tanner Woodard was good for 23 points, Michael Wooten connected for 14 points on four-of-seven shooting from behind the three-point line and Michael Whitley came through with 13 key points as well.
But it’s what the Bulldogs did defensively to slow down Neuse Charter leading scorer Jimmie Sanders III that may have been the key to the close win.
“We have a pretty phenomenal freshman and they put a box-and-one on him the whole night,” Neuse Charter coach Jimmie Sanders said. “We’ve got to get other guys to learn how to flow through that.
“That’s the first time we’ve actually seen that so we’ll go back, make adjustments and learn from it.”
Sanders was held 12 points below his season average.
Jarrod Sealey and Devante Stevens attempted to pick up the slack with each player totaling 14 points apiece and The’shon Charles came off the bench with 13 points.
“The diamond has worked for us a many a time,” Davis said of his defensive strategy. “There have been seasons where it’s been our base defense.”
With the teams deadlocked entering the final quarter, the Bulldogs opened up the fourth quarter on a 10-2 run to gain control. When Whitley spun away from his defender for a lay-up, Princeton had its biggest lead of the night at 55-45 with 2:25 left to play.
Three times the Cougars (9-2) were able to trim that lead down to four points, only to have either Whitley or Wooten answer with made free throws at the other end.
Princeton (5-3) made 10 of 17 shots from the free throw line in the game’s final seven minutes.
Neither team could pull away over the game’s first three quarters but Neuse Charter looked to take the momentum near the end of the third quarter as a mini-spurt led to a 40-35 lead with under a minute to play in the period.
The Bulldogs erased that lead in a matter of 30 seconds, however, thanks to a pair of free throws from Woodard and then a Michael Wooten three-pointer just before the buzzer.
“We didn’t take advantage of the opportunities we had early in the game,” Sanders said. “The longer it went and the closer it got, we knew it was going to be one of those kind of (close) games.”