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Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Meet The Press

The Penn players came out of the locker room smoking before the game last night. They tried their best to imitate the New Zealand national rugby team's dance at half court, bounced a basketball hard off the floor that it went about 40 feet into the air, and slammed into one another as they knew that they were Muhammad Ali with Joe Frazier on the ropes, ready for one more blow to finish off their archrival. They were 4-0 in the Ivies, Princeton was 1-3, and they smelled the kill.

So if I told you that the score was 32-17 at the half, you would have figured that given the way the teams were playing, that sounded about right, that Penn was moving the ball well and shooting the three with confidence, while Princeton was struggling to find open looks. That would have been a plausible explanation, except the team on top was the Princeton team that had been predicted to win the Ivies, and the team with three shooting guards, a small forward and a power forward (and perhaps 2 big forwards off the bench and no one else) was struggling to find its rhythm.

On any given day. . .

Princeton played textbook Tiger basketball in the first half, hitting something like 12 of its first 13 shoots and moving the ball with the "zing" and "oomph" that I had mentioned (in an earlier post) were absent in its first four games. The Tigers moved the ball on offense extremely well, and they played outstanding perimeter defense. This strategy demonstrated Penn's weakness on the front line, as soph center Steve Danley was no match for Princeton senior center Judson Wallace on either end of the floor in the first half. As for Penn, they played a man-to-man defense for most of the half, which was puzzling given the Quakers' lack of depth and the fact that Princeton normally isn't a good three-point shooting team (I had figured that they would have zoned Princeton until the not-so-great shooting Tigers, who had been shooting much better in Ivy competition, could bust it). Near the end of the first half the Quakers pressed a little and played zone, and, had they not, they could have been down by over 20. In the post-game press conference, Princeton coach Joe Scott said that this was one of the best halves of Princeton basketball he had ever seen played. Few would have argued with him.

Penn came out of the locker room to start the second half smoking, hitting a few threes, but Princeton kept on answering. The Quakers couldn't afford to trade baskets, and they found themselves down 53-35 with 7:35 left in the game (according to Kevin Tatum of the Philadelphia Inquirer; I thought the 18-point lead vanished with at least ten minutes to go). Things looked bleak for Penn, as Princeton was holding its own and then some.

I had written in yesterday's post that I thought that Penn would win in regulation by 12, that Princeton would hold its own (it did much more than that) for the first 33 minutes and then fizzle down the stretch (it did much more than that, too). Fran Dunphy had been outcoached until this point, both in terms of preparation (the Penn players had underestimated Princeton) and in game coaching (he stuck with his basic man-to-man defense way too long), and then he made a couple of key moves with under eight minutes to go.

First, he decided that his normally reliable facilitator, soph F Mark Zoller, would remain planted on the bench for the rest of the game. Zoller looked frustrated for most of the night, and he had difficulty against a Tiger defense that seemed designed in part to prevent him from getting the short shots and putbacks for which he has become famous. In his place came 6'10" senior F Jan Fikiel, who was about to show everyone why even some Big 10 schools had recruited him out of HS.

Second, Dunphy obviously watched film of Princeton's last 10 minutes or so against Dartmouth last Friday night, and he remembered that his press worked somewhat well against Princeton near the end of the first half. Penn pressed. Penn pressed. And Penn pressed. About as effectively as anyone has every run a press, especially against its toughest league opponent. The team with no real ballhandlers (save, perhaps, 2G Ibby Jaaber), the team with no PG, the team with really only 2 reserves who get meaningful minutes, the team whose three guards played the entire game (or so it seemed), pressed Princeton every chance they got. In shades of Princeton's miraculous comeback from 26 down with 15 to play in the 1999 game at the Palestra, the Quakers started to chip away at Princeton's lead.

Actually, sledgehammer it. Princeton PG Scott Greenman couldn't avoid Penn's traps, and Princeton 2G Will Venable didn't seem to know what to do to offer much help. Princeton reserve F Andre Logan, a sometimes turnover machine, was a sieve, and made several mistakes with the ball during the games last 8 minutes. Princeton reserve G Max Schafer didn't offer much aid, and Princeton Cs Judson Wallace and Mike Stephens were helpful, but you need solid guard play to break a good press, and, well, Mitch Henderson wasn't available.

Penn went on a 21-3 run (shades of Dartmouth's 18-1 run at the end of the game on Friday night) and the game was tied at 56 with 22 seconds to go. Princeton had the ball, and as if the basketball gods had determined that the Tigers weren't worthy of a victory after Penn's gutsy play, the Tigers fumbled about on offense and couldn't get a shot off. The press took Princeton's half court offense out of its rhythm, and few Tiger fans had any hope for an OT victory. Judson Wallace had fouled out with about a minute and a half to go, and while Mike Stephens played well, it was Wallace who had tormented Penn at both ends all night. Wallace sat a good part of the second half in foul trouble, and when he came back in, the whole tenor of the game had changed.

Penn 70, Princeton 62.

From 7:35 to go until the end of the overtime, Penn outscored Princeton 35-9. The Quakers looked like champions out there, and the Tigers looked like a 1-4 team en route perhaps to its worst league record since the Ivies began play and perhaps, unless they go 6-3 in the league the rest of the way, their only losing season in league play. Ever.


  • Princeton turned the ball over 16 times to Penn's 13, and 11 of those came in the second half.
  • Judson Wallace scored the 1000th point in his career against the Quakers.
  • The referee who made the call that fouled Wallace out of the game (he was called for an offense foul on Steve Danley in the waning minutes of regulation) was Joe DeMayo, the same ref who blew the goaltending call in Princeton's loss at Temple in December. It was a bad call, but it really didn't make a difference. Memo to DeMayo: Get the heck into position before you make a call. Bad omen for the Tigers when DeMayo shows up.
  • Penn won the game on its perimeter shooting in the second half. Fikiel hit 3 threes down the stretch, and they were all big ones. Absent his clutch shooting, Princeton would have held on to win.
  • There has been a ton of discussion (on chat boards) about the fate of Joe Scott, about whether he's the right coach for Princeton, about whether his style will work in the Ivies, etc. Here is my view on Joe Scott: he will win many (and consecutive at that) championships before he leaves Princeton. Yes, the season is disappointing, and yes, the Princeton fans expected a title, but clearly these kids and the coaching philosophy do not mesh. While it might be interesting to see if any of the younger kids transfer (as I don't think any were his recruits), Princeton is an easier place to recruit at than Air Force, and Penn and Brown aren't Utah and UNLV. The Tigers under Scott will rise again. Princeton fans should be patient with this coach; he is a proven winner.
  • Did you notice that the one warrior that Scott singled out after this past weekend, frosh Noah Savage, sat on the bench for almost all of the second half in favor of senior F Andre Logan? That was ironic given that Coach Scott had all but called out his team after last weekend. Savage might have been an improvement over Logan, especially given the latter's propensity for turnovers.
  • If there is a better player/leader in the Ivies than Penn G/F Tim Begley, I'd like to see him. The kid can shoot, the kid can play defense, and his pocket picking of Wallace at the high post with about 4 minutes to go (where he went in for an uncontested layup) was a classic big-player play. Begley had 6 turnovers, but most of his were in the first 25 minutes of the game. Down the stretch, he came up huge.
  • Did you see the sign at the end of the game, where the Penn fans who sat courtside help up a sign that read: "The Cellar Has a Back Door". That was pretty clever. The epitaph could well be that the back door has been painted shut over the years by work crews using red and blue paint, as Princeton got perhaps 1 or 2 back door opportunities off the low post last night.
  • Whither Penn? They could well run the table in the Ivies, although I'm convinced a team that runs 8-9 deep and that has a functional center could beat them by pressing them off the bus and then forcing Danley or his back-up, Ryan Pettinella, to defend one on one and then go one-on-one on offense. Still, this is the Ivies, and I doubt you'll see that team any time soon. What seed could Penn get in the NCAA Tournament? Probably a 13 or a 14, and if they run into an athletic team with quick guards (which would almost be a given), they'll probably be one and done.
  • How much does chemistry matter? A great deal. Penn isn't the most athletic team on the planet, but Coach Dunphy has molded the 7 players he uses with regularity into a solid, play-within-themselves unit. This might be the best coaching job of his career, and that's saying a lot. Why? Because he loves the pure PG, the PG who can penetrate and create, and he's never won an Ivy title without that PG running the team. This year he has a brilliant point forward in Begley, and he's adapted his style to make sure that his team can win with a less than conventional cast.
  • Whither the Tigers? This is gut check time, big time. It's easy to give accolades to teams that win game after game, but I think that Joe Scott and his players will show us what they're made of by how they handle adversity. There are no great moral victories in the offing here, but certain younger players will be playing for their futures in the coaches' eyes, and Coach Scott himself will have to stand up to the adversity and continue to play to win. I don't doubt that will happen, even if being four games out with nine to play requires a seasonal miracle analogous to the comeback that Penn staged last night.
  • The Palestra wasn't packed, and, contrary to Tatum's article, not all fans left the arena thrilled, as there was a Princeton contingent there behind the Princeton bench. My guess is that the arena wasn't packed because the Tigers went into the game 1-3.


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11:04 PM  

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