56th annual Pickle Classic

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“Must wins” usually aren’t mentioned during early-season play.

However, the University of Mount Olive needed it Saturday evening.

Cole Johnson led a balanced scoring attack with 15 points and helped the Trojans blast St. Augustine’s, 90-68, on day two of the 56th annual Pickle Classic at Kornegay Arena.

UMO avoided its first-ever 0-4 start in the Joey Higginbotham coaching era.

“We talked about we had to get this one, and we came out and did what we were supposed to do,” Higginbotham said.

St. Augustine cruised to an early six-point lead before the Trojans (1-3 overall) flipped the script in the opening half. They controlled the boards, attacked the paint which created free-throw chances and committed just a season-low four turnovers.

The Trojans led 12-9 on the defensive glass, collected seven points off eight Falcon turnovers and owned a comfortable 43-25 lead at halftime.

Johnson emerged as the individual catalyst with 12 points, all from 3-point range, and three blocked shots. Javian Cannady and Mathias Caver combined for 13 points on 6 of 10 shooting from the floor.

“I thought we guarded pretty good for the most part, down the [final] stretch it was kind of ugly,” Higginbotham said. “But I was most happy about some guys who stepped up and really solidified roles. We’ve been kind of figuring those out. Cole came in and made some big shots.

“Jeremiah [Phifer] was a sparkplug off the bench, flying around and getting rebounds. We’ve got to get a couple of guys a little more comfortable. Some young guys are growing up.”

Phifer just missed a double-double with 13 points and nine rebounds in 18-plus minutes. Cannady stuffed his stat sheet with 11 points, four assists and four steals.

Caver and reserve Ryan Archey provided nine points apiece.

Barton finished 2-0 in the Classic with decisive victories over St. Augustine’s and Virginia State, which won 99-95 in controversial fashion over UMO on Friday evening.

With its preseason conference slate done, UMO focuses on its 24-game Conference Carolinas campaign, which began at home Tuesday against league newcomer Francis Marion.

“They just knocked off Emmanuel on the road and are a good ball club, so we’ve got to be ready,” Higginbotham said.

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