02/13/05 — NJ wins first conference title in 39 years

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NJ wins first conference title in 39 years

By Neil Fuller
Published in Sports on February 13, 2005 2:02 AM

SEVEN SPRINGS -- Suddenly, 1966 doesn't seem quite so long ago.

Jake Lomonaco scored 22 points, and Willie Smith had 16 points and a game-high 15 rebounds Friday night as the North Johnston men's basketball team clinched its first conference title in 39 seasons with an 87-76 win over Spring Creek.

The top-seeded Panthers will face the winner of Tuesday's Spring Creek-Princeton first-round matchup in the semifinals of the Class 1-A Carolina Conference tournament at Mount Olive College on Thursday night.

Tip-off at College Hall is 7 p.m.

"It's been a real long time," North Johnston coach Derrick Johnson said of his team's championship drought. "I'm proud. I'm real proud. As a coach, you don't get a chance to go out there and play. The kids are the ones that got out there, did the work and deserve what they've accomplished. That's what I'm proud of.

"I'm proud of the way they've worked and gotten better."

Johnson, in his first season at North Johnston, was named conference co-coach of the year -- along with Princeton's Jeff Davis -- on Saturday morning.

The Panthers (16-6 overall, 9-3 Carolina Conference) missed a chance to wrap up the conference title -- only the second in school history -- last Tuesday in a 53-45 loss at Ayden-Grifton.

Johnson feels he may have put too much pressure on his players heading into the final week of the regular season. It was a mistake he didn't repeat on the trip to Spring Creek.

"We didn't really talk about (the conference title) before this game," Johnson said. "I think I focused too much on it before the Ayden-Grifton game. I think I put too much pressure on them, so we didn't even discuss it before this one. I just wanted them to play hard and play a good game tonight."

North Johnston had to overcome a combined nine 3-pointers by Spring Creek guards Chris Wright -- who led all scorers with 24 points -- and Cliff Wilson to earn a split in the regular-season series.

The Gators pulled out a 75-73 double-overtime win at North Johnston on Jan. 18.

Panthers center Damien Allen, who sat out the first meeting with an injury, had 17 points and seven rebounds.

"The biggest difference between then and now was their big guys," Spring Creek coach Sonny Kilpatrick said. "They killed us inside tonight. We just don't have the size to match up with that.

"They just started pulling away from us at the end."

Wright's fifth 3 of the night pulled the Gators (12-8, 7-5) into a 65-all tie with 4:56 remaining. The Panthers answered with a 9-2 run to take the lead for good.

Spring Creek standout guard Josh Bishop scored 19 points on 6-of-19 shooting from the field.

Brandon Sanders scored 14 of his 20 points during the first half for North Johnston as the two sides went into the break tied at 48.

"We didn't want to worry about the pressure of winning a championship tonight," Johnson said. "We just wanted to take care of our business on the court tonight."

Mission accomplished -- and more.

Notes: Spring Creek enters the Carolina 1-A tournament as the No. 4 seed. Its first-round game against fifth-seeded Princeton will determine which of the two teams earns the conference's final NCHSAA playoff berth. ... North Johnston is ranked 10th in the latest NCPreps.com 1-A poll. ... Wilson and Mychael King finished with 14 points each for Spring Creek. ... Lomonaco was 10-of-14 from the free-throw line. ... Wright had a game-high six assists. ... The game served as Senior Night for Spring Creek.