(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.


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Sunday, March 05, 2006

Ringing Endorsement for Princeton Women's Basketball

For more years than one could imagine, and, perhaps, for the entire existence of the program, Princeton's women's basketball team has taken a back seat to the men's team. Actually, saying that would be to exaggerate, because backseat status would have been an upgrade from the trunk in which they were usually placed. No, the Tiger women didn't enjoy the perennial successes of Harvard (whose alumna Alison Feaster was the nation's leading scorer and which was the only #16 seed to upset a #1 seed (Stanford) in an NCAA tournament) and Dartmouth. In short, all of the hoops talk surrounding Princeton University focused exclusively on the men's team. Even up until recently, perhaps the most play the women's team received was that the wife of the coach of the men's team, Leah Scott, is a Princeton alumna who played point guard for the women's team in the late 80's and early 90's.

Suppose I were to tell you that at this point in the basketball season one Princeton team is 11-15 and in second place in the Ivies while another is 20-6 overall and tied for first. Let's suppose that you were on a scientific expedition in Mozambique, didn't have internet access and didn't get news from home. Which record would you have pegged to which team?

Clearly, if you're an average fan, you would have given the better record to the men's team and the lesser one to the women's team. And you would have been wrong.

Last night, the Tiger women beat a stubborn Yale team 67-52 in Jadwin Gym to remain 1/2 game behind league-leader Brown. The Tigers are 11-2 in the Ivies, as is Dartmouth, and both Princeton and the Big Green have their season finales on Tuesday night. If both win on Tuesday, the Ivy women will have a three-team playoff that begins next Thursday night. It wasn't the smoothest event, as the Tigers seemed a bit flat after their big win over Brown the night before, but it was a fun time for a lot of reasons.

First, I took the kids with me. Mrs. SportsProf was down with the bug that has been enveloping most of central and southern NJ and southeastern PA, so after some pizza at a local eatery, we drove to Jadwin Gym, where we paid $5 total for our tickets ($3 for me, $1 apiece for the kids), and it was general admission to boot. So, we sat in what you'd call the student section for the men's games, in the third row, near center court. My kids wore Princeton t-shirts (one orange, one black), and they were thrilled to be so close to the action.

Second was the warm-up. This is a confident team, a team that's happy playing together, and a team with good across-the-board leadership. The Tiger women looked as if Jadwin Gym was the only place they wanted to be, and you could tell in the warm-ups that they were relishing every moment.

Third, it was senior night. The team honored seniors Becky Brown, Lauren Nestor, Katy O'Brien and Ali Smith (and a senior team manager) with nice tributes, framed photos and bouquets, and they were escorted onto the court by their parents. Given that there were about 700 or so in attendance, the gathering was an intimate one.

Fourth, the Tigers' team spirit (again). The women's teams frequently have to generate their own cheering, if for no other reason than they don't enjoy the fan support the men's teams do. So, cheers of "defense" emanated from the Tiger bench, and it was great to see such togetherness. The Princeton band was there, but very few students attended. That in and of itself is a shame, because this is a championship-caliber team, and the men's team enjoys a significantly greater amount of support. That's not to argue that the students should switch their allegiances. It is to argue that they should open up their hearts for the women's team too.

Fifth, the play didn't dazzle in the first half. Yale is a young team, has won only 3 games this season, and emphasizes size over skill (and least in this point of its evolution). The Elis played a kinetic fronting defense on the Tigers' big stars, Becky Brown and Meg Cowher, who were in foul trouble all night. Those two are the Tigers' leading scorers, and without them Princeton struggled. Through a Yale prism, you could argue that Yale played tight defense; through the Princeton lens, you would argue that Yale's big people were holding Princeton's all night. Either way, the first half looked like a club fight between two aging sluggers, as there were plenty of times when both teams' guards made wild penetrations and threw up clunkers that hit the backboard and nothing else.

Sixth, the Tigers came out of the locker room in the second half and ended up putting the game away. Yale's limitation is that it doesn't have a player who averages in double figures, and the Elis cannot shoot the ball from outside. Princeton can, and guard Katy O'Brien hit several threes, the Tigers ran some nice back-door cuts, and at one time were up by about 21. Once the Tigers solved the riddle of Yale's grind-it-out style, they simply ran by the Elis.

Seventh, Tiger coach Richard Barron should get a huge tribute for a strategic decision he made in the off-season. He had tried with limited success to run a more complicated offense, the Princeton offense, during his first four seasons. The Tigers hadn't contended for a title, and he searched for answers. He visited with other coaches in the off-season, simplified his offense, which now runs more high-low sets and enables quick guards to penetrate, and presto, he has a title contender. Many coaches wouldn't have made this change, but it's a tribute to Coach Barron that he did.

Eighth, Coach Barron's animation is infectious. Both the players and Coach Barron at times exhorted the fans to get up on their feet and make a racket for the home team. If I saw a coach do this in a men's game, I might think it's a bit hokey or even somewhat bush (because a logical if unfortunate extension of this thinking is that a home coach in a packed arena could incite a riot), but this was cavernous Jadwin Gym we're talking about and, well, it just felt absolutely right. The kids loved it, they were stamping their feet, chanting "defense", and well, it was a fun night.

I don't know whether the Tiger women will win the Ivies next week, but I do know that they have a veteran nucleus returning and in all likelihood will have a good recruiting class coming in. The women look like they're having fun, and when they got it together in the second half you could have sworn you were watching one of the Tigers' many championship men's teams playing. It's a lot of fun watching a good team that enjoys itself on the court.

For $8 bucks for a family of four, you get good hoops and great seats on a cold winter's night. In an event driven society, it's easy to pass on Ivy sports because they're not big-time, but, if you do pass on local events, you could be missing something very special. It's a chance to get out there and cheer, and a chance to bond with your family and have a lot of fun.


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