While many high school basketball teams play in holiday tournaments to stay sharp, Mark Shelley took a different approach with his Princeton High boys’ hoops squad as it got ready to start 2013 by playing at Trenton High last Thursday.
“There were a few kids who were disappointed that we weren’t playing in a Christmas tournament,” said PHS first-year head coach Shelley.
“I told them I have been doing this for a while and that if we work hard in practice that will help us for Trenton. We did a lot of scrimmaging. We worked a lot on fundamentals, like being strong with the ball, defending with your feet, keeping the ball low when you are dribbling. We also worked a lot on our motion offense, we knew we couldn’t run as many sets against Trenton because they get in the passing lanes. We also worked on three-point shooting drills.”
That hard work paid dividends as PHS edged previously undefeated Trenton 60-57, winning on a last-second three-pointer by senior guard Ellis Bloom and earning their first victory over the Tornadoes since the 1993-1994 season.
For much of the night, it looked like the Little Tigers were going to continue their drought against Trenton as they fell behind by eight points in the third quarter and trailed by five or six points for much of the fourth quarter.
PHS, though, refused to wilt under the pressure being applied by the Tornadoes.
“We really battled and showed a lot of character,” asserted Shelley. “After HoVal, a game we should have won and the loss to Morristown where we could have won, it was good to see the boys come through. I told them if we could keep it close, they might tighten up and we would have a chance.”
It was a heads up play by senior point guard Scott Bechler that gave PHS a chance to win the game when it was tied at 57-57 in the waning seconds.
“Scott forced a shot and it got blocked, he scooped the ball up and underhanded it to Ellis in the corner,” recalled Shelley.
“Ellis shot it right in front of our bench and the ball hung in the air and then fell through. The guys mobbed him.”
For Shelley, the buzzer beater left him with a special memory. “I have coached for a very long time and have never had an ending like that,” said Shelley, who coached for a decade in South Carolina before joining the PHS program last year as an assistant and then getting elevated to head coach this fall.
“I had a game where someone hit a 25-footer to force overtime and we went on to win. That was the most dramatic ending for me.”
Shelley is hoping that coming through in such dramatic fashion will help the Little Tigers down the road.
“Last year, we lost a lot of close games so I hope confidence will build for them,” said Shelley, who got 16 points and 12 rebounds from senior star Lior Levy on the win over the Tornadoes with Bloom and Peter Mahotiere scoring 13 points apiece and Bechler chipping in eight points and 10 assists.
“When we play teams where we have more talent, we can handle them and when we play teams that are talented, we can play with them. I told the boys that every game on our schedule is winnable.”
On Saturday, PHS took care of business as it topped Robbinsville 64-45 to improve to 4-2.
“We were ahead 6-5 and then went on an 11-0 run,” said Shelley, whose team built a 30-14 halftime lead and never looked back.
“I was pleased with the way we jumped on them. It wasn’t the prettiest basketball but you are not always going to get that. Before the Robbinsville game, I said to them is it going to be 3-3 or 4-2, there is a whole different feel to 4-2. I was pleased with the focus.”
In the win over the Ravens, PHS displayed the scoring balance that is becoming its trademark as junior Cal O’Meara led the way with 16 points with Levy scoring 12, Bloom adding 11, and Mahotiere contributing 10.
“I always preach balance,” asserted Shelley. “My last two girls’ teams in South Carolina went 21-5 and all the starters were between 7 and 12 points a game. I really try to handle things psychologically, helping the players buy into the team.”
With PHS playing at Steinert on January 11 and at Princeton Day School on January 12 before hosting Ewing on January 15, the Little Tigers will need to practice what Shelley is preaching to keep on the winning track.
“I don’t do a lot of scheming for other teams,” said Shelley. “It is more important to have the fundamentals down. We had some secondary breaks in transition on Saturday that were beautiful where all five players touched the ball. The ball movement was good, all you ask for is to generate good shots. The guys really like the match-up zone, it is good to have people believe in what we are doing.”