Before Warren County defeated Louisburg last month in the regular season finale, some of the Eagles boys’ basketball seniors flipped the script on Senior Night, taking to the microphone to give special thanks to head coach T.J. McRae and assistant coach Bryan Fuller.
The approach was unconventional on an evening meant to honor the players — not the coaches — and one that had everything to do with embracing a first-year head coach following the team’s one-win campaign the prior season.
McRae returned the favor on Thursday in Johnston County as 24th-seeded Warren County bowed out of the second round of the NCHSAA 1A playoffs with a 70-62 loss at No. 8 Princeton, thanking in the locker room a thoroughly dejected group of Eagles that had reached the state playoffs after a two-year absence.
“You guys earned the respect of everyone in Warrenton,” McRae told them. “Everywhere you traveled someone was bragging about how hard you guys played. I can’t thank them enough for giving me everything they’ve got.”
The effort was there Thursday, just two days after Warren County journeyed about 230 miles to the coast to eliminate No. 9 Cape Hatteras 40-36 in the first round.
The Eagles (11-14) played hard and well for much of the contest against Princeton (21-4), though it was not quite enough against a determined blue-and-yellow clad Bulldogs squad that erased a 16-point third-quarter deficit before outscoring the visitors 27-13 in the final frame.
Giving a large lead away made this one a particularly bitter pill to swallow for Warren County, which had hoped to reach the third round for the first time in recent memory.
“I think as a team we got content with the lead, thinking it was over,” McRae said. “But it’s the state playoffs. Basketball is a game of runs. Anything can happen. This is something I kept reiterating in the timeouts. It just wasn’t clicking.”
Warren County surged ahead in the third quarter with a balanced offensive approach capped by a layup from standout senior guard Andrew Smith that made it 49-33 with 1 minute, 47 seconds to play. Jeremy Daniel and Josh Robison nailed 3-pointers in the cascade of Eagles’ buckets, point guard Deaven Hawkins scored twice from close range and Jay Goode converted an and-one play.
Just when it seemed like Warren County had a foot in the next round, Princeton turned the tide in a matter of moments, scoring seven points in the last 28 seconds of the period.
Aden Taylor, a lanky 5-foot-11 freshman guard who netted a game-high 20, stole the ball and laid it in for the Bulldogs before another Eagles’ turnover led to a corner 3 from Zion McPhatter. Then, leading scorer Nayshin Waller, a 6-foot-3 sophomore, converted a transition layup with 4 seconds on the clock to trim the lead to six points entering the fourth quarter.
“They fought hard,” McRae said of Princeton, “played hard, never gave up.”
The Bulldogs finally took the lead for good at 60-58 with 2 minutes, 4 seconds to play in the game and extended the lead to four points with a pair of free throws from Taylor with 37 seconds left before Christian Perris, a freshman JV call-up, forced a jump ball in Warren County’s backcourt that led to two more Taylor free throws.
Perris was in the game because three of his teammates had fouled out, including Waller, who exited with 4 minutes, 27 seconds in the game. That left Princeton to finish the contest with two juniors, two freshmen and a sophomore after having not a single player foul out in the previous 24 games.
Hawkins also tallied five fouls for the Eagles, and Smith finished with four.
Yes, the officials called the up-tempo game tight, and there were a few other controversial whistles that drew the ire of a small, but vocal contingent of Warren County supporters.
Bulldogs coach David Cobb was complimentary of Smith, who tallied 12 points along with Robison, and credited Juwan Hargrove for causing Princeton to change its defensive approach after the senior came off the Eagles’ bench in the second quarter to drain a pair of 3s from the top of the key.
“That is a heck of a ball team,” Cobb said. “We don’t see athletes like that.”
They did again in the third round, losing 70-53 Saturday to top-seeded North Edgecombe (26-2) of Tarboro.
The third round, or further, is where McRae expects to be next season despite being slated to lose six to graduation, including Roshene Mills, who broke his tibia in the first round, putting a damper on an otherwise memorable trip to Hatteras Island. The injury left Warren County shorthanded against a deep Princeton side that was also missing two of its starters.
Junior Justin Newball and sophomore Daniel, who had a highlight-reel, two-handed put-back jam Thursday of a missed Smith 3, are expected to return as starters for the Eagles.
“I’m happy because I started in August, so I didn’t even get a chance to plan things out in the summer,” McRae said. “Just looking to implement a lot of new things. I can assure you: We’ll be back next year.”