Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 48
 
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
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(Photo by Jon Solomon)

SHOT AT PARADISE: Princeton University men’s basketball head coach Sydney Johnson prepares to shoot last week in the coaches’ free throw contest at the 2007 EA Sports Maui Invitational. Johnson fell to Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, far left in photo, in the contest. On the court, Princeton dropped games to Duke, Arizona State, and Chaminade at the event to fall to 2-3 on the season. The Tigers will look to get back on the winning track when they host undefeated Seton Hall (5-0) on November 28.

Tiger Men’s Hoops Struggled in Paradise but Brings Back Fond Memories From Maui

Jon Solomon

It is roughly 4,889 miles from Jadwin Gym to the shores of Lahaina, Hawaii.

While Princeton residents were suffering weather whiplash as temperatures in Mercer County dipped from sleet to 70 degrees and back again, the Princeton University men’s basketball team spent the week of Thanksgiving five time zones away under clear skies on the sunny island of Maui taking part in the 2007 EA Sports Maui Invitational.

Saturday

After arriving in Hawaii late on November 16, the Tigers hit the court Saturday morning to practice at the Lahaina Civic Center for the first time. Princeton was greeted with a familiar face as former Tiger center and current San Diego Padres All-Star pitcher Chris Young was a surprise guest.

Tucked between the western coast of Maui and Mauna Kahalawai’s twin peaks to the east, the Civic Center’s cozy gym is on the second floor of a building that also houses the Lahaina branch of the Hawaii Motor Vehicles & Licensing Division. The DMV was open for business all through the tournament, with glassy-eyed Hawaiians waiting in line to renew their licenses as fans wandered past them and up to the court.

On Saturday night, two of the Tigers, junior forward Michael Strittmatter and sophomore guard Lincoln Gunn, displayed their skills in another competition as they were the team’s two entrants in an EA Sports March Madness video game competition on an Xbox 360 at the Players’ Meet and Greet Party at the Sheraton Maui Resort.

While he was unable to suit up for any of the on-court action in Maui because of a hamstring injury, Strittmatter defeated Duke’s DeMarcus Nelson in the first round. Gunn was bested by Duke’s Jon Scheyer, the eventual tournament champion. Strittmatter would be eliminated in the second round.

Sunday

Just after sunrise on Sunday morning, the eight head coaches of the schools participating in the Maui Invitational met the media for an outdoor press conference at the Aloha Pavilion of the Westin Maui Resort & Spa. With the Pacific Ocean as the backdrop, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas hosted the panel.

After the press conference concluded, the coaches donned Ti Leaf Leis and were whisked away for group photographs next to surfboards embossed with the logos of the participating schools.

The highlight of the morning was a charity free throw shooting contest pairing each head coach with a local youngster. Despite facing trade winds that altered several other coaches’ shots and dress shoes on his feet, Princeton head coach Sydney Johnson, who said afterwards he had not practiced free throws in several months, was a perfect 3-3 at the line.

Unfortunately, Johnson’s partner did not fair as well as the career 76% free throw shooter, missing all three of his attempts. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s teammate made one of his three chances and Coach K defeated Johnson for the title 4-3 when all three of his shots found the bottom of the net.

Monday

Duke’s titles in the free throw competition and the video game tournament were a sign of things to come. The Tigers faced the Blue Devils on Monday night in day one of the Maui Invitational. In front of a sold out crowd of 2,500, Princeton scored the game’s first basket on a reverse layup by center Zach Finley.

The first half was all Duke from that point forward. The Blue Devils started the game on a 31-6 run, with freshman Kyle Singler scoring Duke’s first eight points. On the strength of 20 offensive rebounds and 21 second-chance points, Duke coasted to an 83-61 victory. The Tigers held their own with the Blue Devils after Duke’s incredible start but the result was never in doubt.

Gunn, returning to the Lahaina Civic Center where he had been a ball boy as a child in the early 1990s, was an efficient 6-9 from the field and canned three of his four three-point shots for a team-high 16 points.

In reflecting on his return to Maui, Gunn was nonchalant. “It’s definitely special, but nothing over-the-top” said the quiet, floppy-haired Gunn, who was on the sidelines in 1992 when Duke won the first of its four Maui Invitational titles. “It is all kind of a blur in the past. It is definitely fun to be back out here playing, a special moment.”

Tuesday

The Tigers’ second opponent was Arizona State, who fell to Illinois in the opening day of action. NBA icon Michael Jordan was in the house on Monday evening to watch his son Jeff play for the victorious Fighting Illini in the final game of the day.

The Devils changed from Blue to Sun, but the result was the same for Princeton on Tuesday. Arizona State used a 15-4 run to open up a close game, pulling away for a 61-42 victory. The Tigers got many open looks in the first half, and the majority of these shots were the kind the coaching staff wants them to take.

“It just didn’t drop in,” said Johnson in reflecting on his team’s shooting in the loss. Princeton was 5-for-26 from three-point range against Arizona State, 1-for-12 in the second half. Co-captain Kyle Koncz connected on his first triple but missed his next nine attempts. Sophomore guard Marcus Schroeder had a team-high 12 points for Princeton and was the only Tiger in double figures.

Wednesday

On the final day of the tournament, Princeton faced host school, Chaminade, in the event’s seventh place game. Unlike the seven teams from the mainland, who came out onto the court for warm-ups accompanied by pre-recorded fight songs and alma maters playing over the public address system, the Silverswords exited the locker room to the sounds of the theme song from the TV series “Hawaii 5-0.” Chaminade’s warm-up jerseys were Hawaiian shirts designed in the school colors of blue and white.

The Division II Silverswords were impressive in their first two games of the Maui Invitational, going toe to toe with Marquette and LSU before falling in the final minutes of each contest. Led by scraggly 7’0” Serbian center Marko Kolaric and slashing small forward Rodrick Johnson, the Silverswords played smart, unselfish basketball, leading Princeton from start to finish, holding off several Tiger runs in a 74-70 victory. Princeton rallied to within a basket seven times in the second half but could not tie the score.

It was an evenly matched, well-played game between two very similar teams. The two teams combined for 31 assists and just 11 turnovers. If one ignored the tropical banner at the ocean-end side of the Lahaina Civic Center, the game could have easily been mistaken for a heated Ivy League battle.

The Tigers’ Noah Savage agreed with that assessment following the game “Chaminade seemed like a league team in a lot of ways” said Savage. “They have a couple of shooters and they have a good center. They just flat out compete.”

Adding to the Ivy League flavor of the contest, Silverswords head coach Matt Mahar’s father, Buddy, coached at Columbia for six seasons from 1978-84.

Senior co-captain Savage paced three Tigers in double figures with 20 points. The Tigers converted 15 three point shots in the game on 29 chances with Savage hitting on 6-of-11 from behind the arc. Finley scored 16 points to go with seven blocks while Gunn chipped in 15 points, all in the second half. Finley’s seven blocks set a new Maui Invitational record.

The Tigers returned to the mainland later that evening. Several of Princeton’s players stayed on the west coast with their families for Thanksgiving. With 10 Tigers on the roster from the Pacific time zone, the stands behind the Princeton bench were full during all three games with loud and loyal relatives of all ages decked out in orange and black.

While Princeton did not pick up a victory in Maui, the trip provided the coaching staff and players with memories they won’t soon forget and showed the Tigers areas they need to improve upon before Ivy play starts in February.

“We learned a lot,” said Johnson, whose team will host undefeated Seton Hall on November 28 as the Pirates visit Jadwin Gym for the first time in two decades. “I’d feel nervous if I had it all figured out right now; we have better basketball ahead of us. We would have loved to take a win or two away from the tournament, but let’s see how we respond.”

(Solomon is the editor of the princetonbasketball.com website and was in Hawaii in his ongoing quest to gather exotic content for the website.)

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