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Vol. LXV, No. 12
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
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CRYING SHAME: Tears flow for Princeton University men’s basketball coach Sydney Johnson at the post-game media session as he reflects on his club’s heartbreaking 59-57 loss to Kentucky last Thursday in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

Johnson’s Deep Love for Tiger Men’s Hoops Came Through in Emotional Press Conference

Bill Alden

When it comes to Princeton University men’s basketball, Sydney Johnson wears his heart on his sleeve.

Johnson joined the program as a freshman guard in 1993 and quickly established himself as a uniquely gifted player and leader.

The wiry 6‘4 Johnson, the only three-time captain in program history, scored 1,044 points and led the Tigers to a pair of Ivy League titles.

Johnson played a prominent role in Princeton’s stunning 43-41 upset of UCLA in the first round of the 1996 NCAA tournament and was the 1997 Ivy Player of the Year. He is the program’s all-time leader in steals with 168 and finished his career ranked second in three-pointers with 162.

Some 10 years later, Johnson came home to take the helm of the program after a stint as an assistant coach at Georgetown under fellow Princeton alum John Thompson III.

The Tigers had fallen from the heights experienced during Johnson’s career, having posted two straight losing seasons before his return to Princeton.

Utilizing his character and competitive fire, Johnson gradually resurrected the program’s fortunes. After a 6-23 debut season in 2007-08, the Tigers started a climb up the Ivy ladder, finishing a distant runner-up with an 8-6 league mark the next winter and then improving to a close second last season with an 11-3 Ivy record.

This winter, Johnson’s turnaround project achieved its main goal as Princeton tied Harvard for the regular season crown and then edged the Crimson 63-62 on a buzzer-beater by Douglas Davis to earn the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

In the post-game celebration after that win, a thrilled Johnson beamed and told one interviewer that the win meant so much to him because he “loves, loves” Princeton basketball.

Last Thursday, Johnson displayed deep emotion of a different kind at the press conference after his 13th-seeded Tigers lost a valiant 59-57 battle to No. 4 Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA tourney at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Fla.

A broken-hearted Johnson let the tears flow as he reflected on the clash of the storied powers.

“Princeton-Kentucky, from my vantage point, are two of the best programs we have seen in college basketball,” said Johnson.

“So I was very excited and I wanted to demand from our players that we live up to that …”

At that point, Johnson paused and then he started sobbing. After wiping the tears away, he added … “and I think we did. I think we did that.”

Senior guard Dan Mavraides was not surprised when he learned of his coach’s show of emotion.

“Coach cares so much about this team and this program and this school,” said Mavraides, speaking in a hushed Tiger locker room.

“Having played here and having played in games similar to this against UCLA, I think he saw that there were a lot of similarities between this team and his team; he saw how bad we wanted it. We are all very emotional about this team and we are all very close. There is a lot of chemistry.”

After the game, Johnson made his players come over to the Princeton rooting contingent gathered at the corner of the arena across from the Tiger bench to acknowledge their raucous support.

“We didn’t want to celebrate a loss in any way, shape or form,” said Johnson, reflecting on the post-game curtain call.

“I just feel like there’s a lot of love for our program, and our alumni and fans and families and everybody has come out to support us in droves and you have to respect that. You know, as much as a I love our guys, they have to realize that we’re all people and we’ve got to do things the right way, and when someone has given you the support our fans have given us, you’ve got to say thank you.”

And those supporters owe Johnson a big thanks for having given his heart and soul to the Princeton program.

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