NJ’s Jones handles the pressure to be Times Girls Player of the Year

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North Johnston High’s Tayanna Jones simply took in stride the pressure and expectations handed to her and delivered an outstanding senior season, making her an easy choice as The Wilson Times Girls Basketball Player of the Year.

As if being the player who is going to Georgetown University wasn’t enough pressure for Jones this past season, losing the other half of the Lady Panthers dynamic duo — junior center Levossie Taylor — to a season-ending injury in the fifth game added to the scoring burden for Jones.

“I’m very excited,” Jones said. “This is one thing I was working toward before the season started and I think it’s one thing I was capable of and I’m very excited to get it.”

Jones, who is a three-time Wilson Times All-Area selection, was the heartbeat of the Lady Panthers offense as their 6-foot-1 point guard. She averaged 21.4 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.4 steals and 2.0 assists in helping North Johnston to an 18-7 overall record and a 5-5 mark and tying for third place in the 2-A Eastern Plains Conference, which produced the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 2-A state champion in North Pitt.

Jones, who earned All-Eastern Plains acclaim for the third time, was selected to play in the Carolinas Classic North-South All-Star Game last month and was a McDonald’s All-American Game nominee. She finished her North Johnston career with 1,363 points.

Her size and agility at the point gave opponents fits.

“Being able to have guard skills at 6-1 gave her an advantage over smaller opponents,” Lady Panthers head coach Jay Poole said. “She could post up smaller defenders, or shoot the 3-pointer over them as well. Her versatility was key for us since we could have her at the top of our press or match her up on our opponents’ post players.”

While Jones was North Johnston’s top offensive threat, it was her dedication to improving as a defender that impressed Poole.

“Tayanna has come so far since she was a freshman,” he said. “Her first year at North Johnston she was learning what high school defense and fundamental skills were needed for the varsity level. Due to her hard work and off-season devotion, she developed her skills and was determined to become a great player. Every year she has continued to improve and along with it helped North Johnston improve as a team as well.”

The Lady Panthers really needed Jones this season when Taylor, who averaged 18.6 points and 9.7 rebounds as a sophomore, was lost for the season with a knee injury in North Johnston’s game against Ayden-Grifton on Dec. 6.

“Me and Levossie were always the leaders but when she got hurt, I knew I had to lead the team more now,” Jones said. “My role didn’t change but my coach told me that I would be on my own now.”

That meant Taylor would no longer be in the paint waiting to finish a pass from Jones.

“When I was driving sometimes I would want dish it to her but she wasn’t there so I had to pull up or bring it out,” Jones said.

And without Taylor, Jones found herself the object of opposing double-teams. But she led the Lady Panthers to a 14-0 start that included a 63-55 win over North Pitt, the eventual conference and state champion.

Unfortunately, the streak ended the next game when Beddingfield, which would finish last in the EPC, surprised North Johnston on the Lady Bruins’ home floor.

“The conference is tough,” Jones said. “I felt like we were on a good winning streak and we kind of got complacent, like when we played Beddingfield. I don’t think we showed up like we should have.”

Jones, who signed with Georgetown in November, said opposing fans targeted her during games. Even the referees made note of her college choice.

“A lot of the referees sometimes when we were warming up would come and ask me, ‘Hey, you’re going to Georgetown, right?’” Jones said with a laugh.

But all the attention didn’t distract her.

“You have to keep a level head and don’t worry about what people think,” she said. “My parents always told me to stay humble, stay hungry.”

Jones said she was proud of her accomplishments and the legacy she is leaving for Lady Panthers basketball.

“North Johnston wasn’t really known for basketball,” she said, “We were more known for softball, but I wanted to change that this year.”