For the Princeton High boys’ basketball team, last week proved to be a good preview of the challenges it will face in postseason play.
PHS started the week by rallying from a 19-5 deficit to defeat Nottingham 53-45 on February 4. Three days later, the Little Tigers took on a powerful Hillsborough squad and fell 55-39.
In the view of PHS head coach Mark Shelley, his team displayed the fortitude it will need to make a deep playoff run with its comeback win against the Northstars.
“We showed a lot of character,” said Shelley, whose team outscored Nottingham 20-9 in the second quarter to take a 23-22 halftime lead and then sealed the deal with an 18-7 fourth quarter.
“We told them they don’t have to do it all at once and that to focus on just winning that quarter. We got hot, Scott [Bechler] hit a couple of threes and we got back into it pretty fast.”
The Little Tigers also produced the scoring balance necessary to thrive in tournament time as senior guard Bechler tallied 15 points with Elliott Golden adding 12 and Lior Levy and Cal O’Meara chipping in eight points apiece.
“That’s when we play our best; that is when we are harder to guard and we are passing well,” said Shelley.
Against Hillsborough, PHS got to test its skills against a high level foe. “My thought when we played Hillsborough is that it is as good a team as we will see,” said Shelley.
“They are not as dynamic as Notre Dame in the sense that don’t have three quality players like them. They have a bunch of really solid players and they play a really good zone. They are long and athletic. We only had 15 points at halftime and we were running good offense. We just couldn’t get shots to fall and we had a few too many turnovers. It was nice to play them at this point of the season, it had zero bearing on the state tournament and it didn’t affect our division.”
It will be nice for PHS to end the regular season with a home game against Hamilton on February 14 as it prepares for the postseason push.
“We are going to come out hard in practice on Tuesday and have a lighter day on Wednesday,” said Shelley, noting that the team lost practice time and had a game with Florence cancelled due to the snow storm that hit the area last weekend.
“It is good to have a game on Thursday and get tuned back up. Hopefully we can have a good game.”
Having been seeded eighth in the upcoming Mercer County Tournament, Shelley believes the Little Tigers can do some damage against its local rivals.
“I do [think we can make a good run] but we have to take it one game at a time,” said Shelley, whose team has a 10-8 record and will host ninth-seeded Nottingham on February 16 in the opening round of the MCT.
“There is Notre Dame (No. 1 seed) out there, that makes it tough. We played Trenton, WW/P-S, Ewing, and PDS, we were competitive with all of them. Notre Dame is the only team where the guys have been wide-eyed so it is a challenge.”
In the Central Jersey Group 3 sectional, PHS has been seeded fourth and will host No. 13 Hopewell Valley on February 26 in an opening round contest looking to turn the tables on a Bulldog squad that beat PHS in the first game of the season.
“We love our seed in the state; HoVal is better now but so are we,” added Shelley.
“We didn’t play good defense that night and it was the first game under my system. We know we are going to have at least one home game and maybe two.”
In order to do well in the playoffs, PHS needs to stick to its system. “I think it comes down to fundamentals and sharing the ball,” said Shelley.
“We have to do what we do and do it well. If we are playing our matchup zone well, we should be able to contain anybody. We are leading the CVC in defense (giving up 51.9 points a game), which we are very proud of.”
The Little Tigers will also need to play with the resolve it displayed in the comeback win over Nottingham.
“The mindset has to be confident but calm,” asserted Shelley. “We can’t get too hyped up or nervous. There is a certain element in the postseason of physical and mental toughness. The basketball is more rugged.”