Princeton is one game away from a state championship.
The Bulldogs used a big second half to pull away from Northside-Pinetown en route to an 82-67 win in the N.C. High School Athletic Association 1A East Regional final on Tuesday night.
Princeton advances to play Murphy in the 1A state championship game at Wheatmore High School in Trinity on Saturday.
“Going to the state championship is something you dream about as a coach, and the players as well, and everybody sets a goal to do that,” Princeton head coach Paula Wooten said. “I’m just speechless, really. I’m proud of these kids. They worked hard this year.
“What more can I say. They played a whale of a game, and Northside is a good team that puts a lot of pressure on you, so I know my girls were tired, but they did what they had to do. I’m proud of them.”
The Bulldogs opened the game with back-to-back baskets from Meredith Wooten and Anna Taylor, and Princeton jumped out to a 12-6 lead midway through the first quarter.
But the Panthers settled down and responded with a 9-3 run to tie things up at 15-15.
A three-pointer from Hailey Tart enabled Princeton to take back the lead, and the Bulldogs led 21-19 at the end of the first quarter.
“It was kind of a back-and-forth game,” Wooten said.
The Panthers opened the second quarter with a 6-0 run, which enabled them to take a 25-21 lead.
Princeton answered with a 6-0 run of its own, including a basket from Le’Onna Nelson that gave Princeton a 27-25 lead with 5:37 left until halftime.
The Bulldogs outscored Northside-Pinetown 15-10 during the final five minutes of the second quarter and extended their advantage to 40-35 at halftime.
“I feel like Northside got a couple of second chances and hit couple three-pointers, and we’d be up, and all of a sudden they were up by two,” Wooten said. “I was really proud of the kids for not getting down on themselves.”
Meredith Wooten sank a pair of buckets to begin the third quarter and started a 9-2 Princeton run that increased the Bulldogs’ lead to 49-37. A basket from the Panthers’ Katie Godley cut Princeton’s lead down to 10 points.
Taylor nailed a three-pointer to give Princeton a 52-44 advantage, but the Panthers refused to go away. The Panthers used another 8-2 run to claw Princeton’s lead down 55-48 at the end of the third quarter.
However, the Bulldogs pounced on the Panthers in the fourth quarter.
A basket from Meredith Wooten and another three-pointer from Taylor helped start an 8-1 run that put Princeton up 63-49.
Northside-Pinetown fought back, and a three-pointer from Paige Sawyer closed the gap 65-54, but Princeton pulled ahead by 17 points with three minutes to play and held off the Panthers to win the regional championship.
“All the kids have stepped up, and it’s a total team effort,” Wooten said. “If they tried to shut down one or two of our girls, somebody steps up, and that’s what it takes.”
In her final game inside the Deacon Jones Gymnasium, Wooten scored a game-high 30 points. Nelson, who was also playing her final home, scored 14 points. Taylor contributed 23 points, Kayleigh Klein added seven points, and Tart finished with six points.
“It’s priceless, I’ve been blessed to able to coach for four years in every sport and see her mature and grow, and it’s emotional. I’m proud of the player she’s become, the young lady she’s become, and the leader she’s become. It’s special,” Wooten said about her daughter Meredith. “She’s really been driven, and she and Le’Onna have been great leaders as seniors.”