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Friday, December 31, 2004

Princeton 75 Loyola (Md.) 62

And it wasn't even that close, at least not for most of the second half, as the Tigers came out of the locker room after halftime smoking, pushing their lead out to at least 22 at one point, before emptying the bench and, relatively speaking, "holding on" for a 13-point win. Princeton is now 7-4; Loyola, under first-year coach Jimmy Patsos, is 1-8.

It was much closer in the first half, which ended with the Tigers leading 30-25. The Princeton lead should have been in double digits, but sloppy play on offense and some matador defense at times by Princeton against penetrating Loyola players enabled the Greyhounds to stay in the game. The sloppy play on offense included the failure by Will Venable, Judson Wallace and Scott Greenman to convert on layups and some bad sets on offense that resulted with the Tigers hurrying to take a shot before the time clock expired. At one point in the first half, with about five minutes to go, Princeton coach Joe Scott turned to his bench and said, "We are totally undisciplined on offense."

It didn't take a kid en route to a Princeton degree to figure that out. The Tigers offense wasn't nearly as precise as Coach Scott would like it to be (which in all likelihood is more precise than what Coach John Thompson III accepted as the norm in the previous season). Loyola played a man-to-man defense for much of the game, and Princeton normally exploits the living daylights out of overzealous defenders, but they didn't do so in the first half. Credit goes to Loyola for their hard-nosed defense to some extent, but the Tigers' offense just didn't have its customary zip. There were too many moments of indecision, not only by the freshmen starters (G Matt Sargeant and F Noah Savage) but also from the senior leaders (C Judson Wallace and G/F Will Venable). G Scott Greenman was the most consistent force for the Tigers in the half.

Okay, so it sounds like the Tigers were getting blown out of their own building before a crowd of about 4,000, that they had to come back from a 14-point deficit, but it just wasn't so. They didn't play that badly, it only seemed that way. My guess is that Coach Scott blistered his regulars in the locker room about precision and blown opportunities.

So what happened? The Tigers responded as well to Coach Scott's coaching as Seabiscuit did to the whip of jockey George Woolf during the home stretch of his match race against War Admiral at Pimlico (in Loyola's home town, no less) and came out of the gate determined to put a great distance between themselves and their rivals. On their first play on offense, Princeton passed the ball crisply, found Matt Sargeant in the corner for a three, and he was fouled on the play. Sargeant converted the foul shot, and the Tigers were up 9. If you walked in late from intermission, you missed this spark, and then the Tigers put their offense into gear. Two more threes by Sargeant and a few by Scott Greenman puffed the lead to about 55-33 at one point in the second half. The Greyhounds' press, which they deployed for most of the game, looked like the hoops verson of a sieve. All it ended up doing was tire out the visitors' starting five.

After that, it was garbage time, so much so that many fans started to leave, including me. After that, in the final minutes, my guess is that it was serious garbage time, as both coaches emptied their benches.

Here are some observations from the game:

1. The game seemed like it took forever, and, in certain ways it did, if for no other reason than the referees officiated as if they got paid by the whistle this afternoon. The Tigers shot 39 foul shots, the Greyhounds 35. Clearly, the ref (Joe DeMayo) who blew an obvious goaltend in the Tigers' heartbreaking loss at Temple 10 days ago was not on hand. Otherwise, Princeton would have shot 55 free throws to the Greyhounds 19. Both teams had more than 10 fouls per half, which meant, especially in the second half, that ticky-tack fouls earned the foulee two shots each time.

2. Princeton deployed a match-up zone defense for most of the game. The Greyhounds had trouble cracking the Tigers' defense, and only guard Charlie Bell was able to inflict much damages (22 points) against Princeton. At times, the Loyola guards (other than Bell) looked lost out there, unable to generate much offense. That said, I thought that Loyola was most effective when they found their big men inside, but they lost their patience in trying to do that too early in the game.

3. Princeton's guards shot 13 for 20, and in scoring 14 points Matt Sargeant had his finest offensive game of the year. He played with great intensity in the first say 7 minutes of the second half, the half in which he probably did some of his best work of his young career. Will Venable looked spectacular at times, and he had the line to show for it -- 12 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 5 steals, that proved that he was all over the floor all the time. Only his 4 turnovers, most, if not all of which came in the first half, were a negative for him in this game.

4. While Venable played his usual heady game to help lead the Tigers, G Scott Greenman looks to be the glue for the Tigers' floor game. He is a great ballhandler (and press breaker), good outside shooter, tough defender and he makes tough feeds for baskets. He doesn't have the talent of Venable, but he cannot be outworked (he had 13 points and 2 assists). That said, Sargeant's shooting has to be a good omen for the Tigers, who need to show that all five players on the floor can hit the open shot. They did that today.

5. While this Tigers' team doesn't look as fluid as, say, the championship teams of Princeton's past, they have a ton of talent for an Ivy team. SF Luke Owings returned and hit a three, and backup guard Max Schafer drilled a laser-like three from the corner at the end of the first half. Back-up C Mike Stephens didn't distinguish himself today (0 points in 9 minutes, although he had one block where he didn't have to leave his feet), and back-up PF Andre Logan is still shaking off the rust (he had 4 points and 3 rebounds in a solid outing), but none of the players in the rotation looks to be a weak link. Once Logan and Owings (who also is shaking off the rust from being out with a stress fracture in his foot and who looks much more buffed than last year) get into real game shape, the Tigers will have a solid nine-player rotation.

6. The Tigers' defense still needs a bit of work. At times the quicker Loyola guards penetrated inside, and there wasn't enough defensive help. Freshman forward Noah Savage has to work on his defense; he fouls too much (fouled out again today).

7. Princeton outrebounded Loyola 22-21, out-assisted the Greyhounds 17-9 and shot much better from three-point land (7-16 for the Tigers, 3-10 for the Grehounds). They also committed more turnovers, 16 to 13. Look for the turnovers to come down as the Tigers solidify their rotation. Under Coach Scott, I would expect the turnovers to drop to an average of single digits in the Ivy season.

Happy New Year, everyone!


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