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Vol. LXI, No. 46
 
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
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ZACH ATTACK: Princeton University sophomore center Zach Finley heads to the hoop for two of his 22 points in Princeton’s 59-57 win over Central Connecticut State in the season opener for both teams. Finley hit on 10-of-11 shots from the field as he established a new career high.

Sizzling Finley Sparks PU Men’s Hoops as Johnson Era Begins on High Note

Bill Alden

For 20 minutes last Sunday, the Princeton University men’s basketball team seemed to have picked up where it left off in last season when the Tigers plummeted to the Ivy League cellar.

Hosting Central Connecticut State in the season opener and the debut of new head coach Sydney Johnson, Princeton hit on just 5-of-19 shots in the first half and trailed 24-16 at the break.

With the Jadwin Gym crowd of 2,205 starting to get restless as visions of last year’s futility came to mind, an unlikely hero emerged to save the day.

Sophomore center Zach Finley, who averaged 3.0 points a game last winter and had four points in the first half as he struggled with foul trouble, hit his first eight shots after intermission to spark a Princeton rally that saw the Tigers outscore the Blue Devils 41-26 to build a 57-50 lead.

Showing some coolness under pressure, Princeton held off Central Connecticut 59-57 as the Blue Devils missed an open three-pointer with seconds left but couldn’t get a good look after that as the Tigers pressured the ball.

Finley ended the game with a career-high 22 points on 10-of-11 shooting with five rebounds and three assists.

In assessing his breakout performance, Finley credited his teammates with helping him get open inside.

“I thought we were working the ball around in the perimeter,” said the 6’9, 230-pound Finley, a native of Rapid City, S.D. whose previous career high was 12 points.

“I was able to get positioned in there and find some open spots and was able to make most of them.”

Working though his early foul trouble helped Finley be in a position to succeed.

“It’s something I need to be more conscious of; I struggled with that a little bit last year,” said Finley, who had 18 points in the second half.

“With some of our other big guys out today, it was important that I stay out of foul trouble. But at the same time, I need to be keep playing aggressively and just be smarter when I am playing.”

The soft-spoken Finley acknowledged that he feels more comfortable in the Princeton offensive system.

“Coming out here last year, it was kind of new for me,” said Finley.

“I wasn’t real familiar with the Princeton style of offense. This year, it’s my second year doing it and I am more comfortable out there. You learn that when you are on the floor, it’s just basketball, just like you have been playing all of your life. It’s a lot more easy to just go out there and play.”

Head coach Johnson was happy with the way Finley went out there and played. “We certainly wanted to get him a few touches,” said Johnson. “He had a good game.”

If Finley can keep producing like he did Sunday, he could end up in the pantheon of superb Princeton centers.

“We’ve had good centers here in the past, one of may favorite players is Kit Mueller,” said Johnson, a 1997 PU alum who was a three-time captain of the men’s hoops team and the Ivy League Player of the Year in his senior season.

“Everybody who has come after him has been told by Coach [Pete] Carril about this guy Mueller. I think it’s big jump to compare Zach to that but there are good signs. There is some mobility and he is comfortable finishing with either hand. Zach has made some progress but we have a lot of basketball between now and March.”

Johnson liked the way his team progressed Sunday from its slow start.

“I told them to believe,” said Johnson, recalling his halftime message. “I think we had a healthy respect for who we were playing, I thought maybe we weren’t respecting ourselves enough.”

Getting a win in his debut left Johnson beaming but respectful. “It feels good; I’m humbled again by Central Connecticut State because I think they came in and competed as well as they possibly could,” said Johnson, whose team shot a sizzling 58.6 percent (17-for-29) from the floor in the second half including 40 percent (6-for-15) from the three-point range. “They challenged us and we were fortunate to come out on top.”

Senior co-captain Kyle Koncz was proud of the way Princeton kept competing in the first half when it seemed like there was a lid on its basket.

“Coach has been preaching to us to compete no matter what is going on and that showed up in the first half,” said Koncz, who ended the day with 10 points, seven rebounds, and two assists.

“We shot really bad but we were able to stay in the game because we competed hard; the defense kept us in the game in the first half.”

For Johnson, that type of attitude dovetails with one of his major themes.

“I talk a lot about us being willing to face challenges; some we aren’t going to be able to overcome but I don’t want them running away from any challenge,” asserted Johnson, whose team hosts Iona on November 14 before heading to Hawaii for the EA Sports Maui Invitational where they will face Duke on November 19 before playing opponents to be determined on November 20 and 21.

“It says so much about who you are as a Princeton student-athlete that you don’t run away from challenges; that is what has defined us over the years.”

The rookie head coach is ready for the challenges that face him in his maiden voyage at the helm. “I had the best boss you could possibly ask for in John Thompson III,” said Johnson, who was an assistant on Thompson’s staff at Georgetown the last three seasons.

“John Thompson showed me the way. I was put in a position where he would ask me what do you think, what do you see. That’s the kind of dialog you get from head coaches who are bringing assistant coaches along. They help you to mature and see the game the way they are seeing it. I’m not saying my learning is finished but he helped prepare me for this moment.”

The moment for Johnson on Sunday was enhanced when he realized Thompson was on hand at Jadwin.

“I thought maybe it could happen,” said Johnson. “He’s has come through for me and my family. It’s consistent with who he is. He comes through for his players, the Georgetown fans and the Princeton fans.”

Finley, for his part, maintains that he and his teammates want to come through for the Princeton basketball family.

“Year in, year out, the desire to win is the same,” asserted Finley.

“We’re not trying to win for one person or ourselves. We’re trying to win for everyone; that’s the mentality we are trying to take into it.”

If Finley can build on what he did last Sunday, the Tigers may produce a lot of wins this season.

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