Gallery by Greg Barnett
Coming off a state tournament berth a year ago, Princeton opened the 2023-24 girls basketball season with a sectional showdown Tuesday night in Beckley.
Although the Tigers returned limited varsity experience, they were able to walk away with a solid 48-34 win over the Flying Eagles.
“Outside of three kids, we don’t have a lot of varsity experience,” fourth year head coach Matt Smith said. “Our scrimmage got canceled as well. This is the first time these girls have seen the floor together not playing each other. They worked through the nerves, came out in the second quarter and kind of establish who they were. Then they finish it up in the third quarter.”
Trailing 6-5 in opening stanza, Sarah Hopkins hit a left-handed floater in the lane to give Beckley the lead. Cadence Reid pushed the advantage to five points with four made free throws and the home team appeared to be in control with just over a minute remaining in the first period.
That all changed in a blink.
Brie Bane nailed a 3-pointer with six seconds left on the clock and Kalee Wright provided the big spark when she hit a half-court buzzer beater for the lead.
Princeton never trailed the remainder of the night.
“Kalee Wright probably didn’t get the minutes she should have last year. She is a ball player,” Smith said. “That is the best compliment that you can give a basketball player. She is ball player and you saw that tonight. When we needed a bucket, Kalee Wright goes and gets it.”
Wright opened the second quarter with a strong drive to the basket for another score and hit a straight-away 3-pointer later in the quarter give the Tigers a nine-point lead with 3:38 to play until halftime.
“She can shoot and put it on the deck to attack the rim,” Smith said. “That shot at the end of the first quarter not only freed her up, it kind of freed everybody else up. We were a little hyped and a little nervous early and you could tell.”
The Princeton lead was 10 late in the quarter, but baskets from Shyloh Mack and Somalia Nelson trimmed the lead to six points at the break.
Following double digit turnovers in the first half, Beckley head coach Brian Nabors knew his team was fortunate to be within striking distance.
“We were lucky to only be down by six at halftime,” Nabors said. “We could have been down more than that. We just shot ourselves in the foot trying to make plays that weren’t there. We were just unprepared and that is my fault.”
A four minute scoring drought by the home team in the third period was the opening that Princeton needed to separate the game.
Leading 29-22, Wright converted three free throws and Carley Hurt converted an old-school 3-point play for a 13-point lead that became a 42-27 lead after three quarters.
“I haven’t prepared them,” Nabors said. “So many things that you have to do and cover with a young team that you trying to get fundamentally sound. Then we don’t come out and show those fundamentals. That is disheartening, but I am not blaming them. We are just not ready yet. We will be, so we will keep working and we will get better.”
The Flying Eagles were also hampered by some early season injuries that kept all-stater Josie Cross sidelined, along with Alauna Ellis and Lithena Hazelwood.
“Aluana has been playing really good and Lithena gives us another ball-handler, but no excuses,” Nabors emphasized. “Hats off to Princeton. They were ready to play and we weren’t.”
Wright ended the night with 17 points followed by Asia Collins with 12 points. Nelson led Beckley with 11 points.
Princeton hosts Tazewell, Va. Tuesday, while the Flying Eagles travel to South Charleston Tuesday.
P: 12 13 17 6 – 48
B: 11 8 8 7 – 34
Kalee Wright 17, Maddie Stull 4, Brie Bane 3, Addisyn Sarver 5, Arie Mullins 2, Asia Collins 12, Carley Hurt 5.
Sarah Hopkins 2, Leloni Manns 5, Somalia Nelson 11, Rachel Pritt 3, Shyloh Mack 2, Cadence Reid 4.