Princeton Men's Hoops Shows Character In Achieving its First Ivy Weekend Sweep
By Bill Alden
The crowd at Jadwin Gym had turned restless last Saturday night as the Princeton University men's basketball team headed into the dressing room trailing Dartmouth by a point at the half.
Hungry for some excitement, the 4,800 in attendance got a jolt at halftime as the 1964-1965 Tiger men's basketball squad was honored for reaching the Final Four 40 years ago this month.
Many in the crowd stood and cheered as eight of the players from that storied club were introduced.
The loudest roar came when the ninth player, all-time Princeton scoring leader and former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, walked out to center court, grinning broadly and waving to the crowd.
With the gym still buzzing from the halftime festivities, the 2004-05 Tigers showed some of the aggressiveness and skill of their legendary predecessors over the last 20 minutes of the contest.
Princeton held the Big Green to 36.8 percent shooting from the floor in the second half while hitting 56.3 percent of its shoots and 16-of-20 free throws as it pulled away to a 65-54 win.
The win gave the Tigers their first weekend sweep of the season and sent them into their March 8 season finale against visiting Ivy League champ Penn with a 15-12 overall record and a 6-7 mark in league play.
Princeton head coach Joe Scott was heartened by how his squad rose to the occasion in the second half.
"I thought we were a little lackluster in the first half, mostly defensively," said Scott, whose team had started the weekend with a 66-44 rout of Harvard on Friday.
"That's what we talked about at halftime, being more aggressive defensively, going after the ball, and not letting them get second shots. I thought there was an immediate pick-up in the second half. I thought we played a pretty good 20 minutes, it was a hard game."
Scott credited senior guard Will Venable with being a catalyst in Princeton's second half surge. "I thought in the second half tonight that Will came out and there was a distinct difference in his defensive presence, " said Scott of the 6'3 senior, who scored a game-high 19 points to bring him to 999 points in his Tiger career with one regular season game remaining. "Will's overall effort in the second half was really good. He played well all weekend."
Venable, for his part, took pride in fighting through the frustration that has characterized this winter.
"It's been tough," acknowledged Venable in reflecting on a season which has seen the Tigers go from prohibitive favorites to repeat as Ivy champs to league also-rans.
"It's been a character test for all of us. To do what we have after being down, I'm proud of myself and my team. We're showing character and that we're competitors and that we're not going to give up."
In Venable's view, the team's strong weekend was the product of defensive intensity. "It's all about defense and sustaining it," asserted Venable, who had five rebounds and a steal in the win over Dartmouth.
"Obviously in the losses earlier to Penn, Harvard, and Dartmouth we played really well for 30 minutes and then everything just fell apart. So just being able to sustain it and compete for 40 minutes and stick with the things we're trying to do was the difference."
Scott believes the seniors' intensity over the last few weeks has made a difference as the Tigers have fought to prevent the program from posting its first-ever losing season in Ivy play.
"I think that they are working really hard," declared Scott, referring to his group of seniors. "It's important to them to win these last three home games. The guys were digging in and it paid off for them tonight."
Venable, who will be heading to Princeton's baseball team after winding up his basketball career, is determined to get the most out of his final moments on the court.
"I've just been thinking that these are the last opportunities I'm going to have to be on the floor," said Venable in a quiet tone.
"It's something I thought about as I'm preparing for the game each day. I'm just trying to keep it in my head just don't be sorry at the end of the game, put everything out there that you could."
While Venable won't be going to the Final Four, he has certainly demonstrated a spirit that would resonate with the members of the 1964-65 team on hand last Saturday.