It is an image that is burned into Scott Bechler’s mind when he looks back at his time with the Princeton High boys’ basketball team.
“I remember freshman year when we had a home game in the states and we lost and seeing Skye Ettin in the locker room afterwards,” said senior guard Bechler. “It was motivation to never let that happen again.”
As fourth-seeded PHS hosted 13th-seeded Hopewell Valley last week in the opening round of the Central Jersey Group III sectional, the memory of Ettin’s sadness wasn’t the only motivation as the Little Tigers had fallen in overtime to the Bulldogs in the regular season opener in December.
“We said before the first game of the season that it was a must win and we lost,” said Bechler.
“All season long, we have been looking back on that game, saying we should have won. We get another chance in the playoffs and we couldn’t be more excited to get revenge.”
In the early going of the February 26 contest, it looked like PHS may be squandering its chance at payback as it trailed 10-6 after the first quarter. The battle-tested Bechler, who helped the PHS boys’ soccer team tie for the Group III state title this fall, wasn’t concerned.
“A lot of times this year we have come out a little slow,” said Bechler. “It is the first round of the states and we have a couple of juniors who have never been here before. They only scored 10 points in the quarter; everyone was just getting ready and getting into the swing of things.”
In the second quarter, Bechler and PHS got into the swing of things as they outscored HoVal 19-11 to take a 25-21 lead at halftime.
“We settled in a little bit and everyone came out hard,” said Bechler. “We got the jitters out and that is when you can come really hard.”
The Little Tigers kept coming on in the second half, rolling to a 62-42 win, triggering a raucous on-court celebration as the student fans mobbed the players.
Bechler scored 15 points in the victory, hitting three 3-pointers in the second half, continuing a late surge that started when he poured in a career-high 31 points against Hamilton on February 7.
“After a game like Hamilton West where everything went your way, you have a responsibility to keep shooting because people are depending on you,” said Bechler, who hit nine three-pointers in his outburst against the Hornets.
“It is my last few games; any game could be my last. It is a lot of pressure but it is a lot of motivation.”
In topping HoVal, the Little Tigers focused on applying defensive pressure.
“The number one thing was to stop Austin Hill, we know he can shoot lights out and that he was scoring 15 points a game,” said Bechler.
“We knew if we could shut him down, it would be tough for them to score a lot of points.”
Two days later, however, PHS found it tough to score points as it fell 56-43 to fifth-seeded Lawrence in the second round of the state tourney to end its season.
While PHS head coach Mark Shelley was disappointed that PHS didn’t advance beyond the second round, he and his players enjoyed the ride.
“One of the great things in the locker room is that every senior said how much fun they had playing this year,” said Shelley, whose team finished the winter at 12-11.
“That’s what you ultimately want as a coach. Obviously you want the win. We had some special moments this season. We talked about Scotty’s nine 3s, we won a game by 40 which they said they have never done. We beat Trenton at Trenton. We got two home playoff games and we won one. There are so many positives. I told them I can tell you now that when you get to college and beyond, you will look back on this fondly. As long as you came out of here saying that you had fun and played as hard as you could, that is all we ask.”
Shelley acknowledged that the Little Tigers faced a hard task in subduing Lawrence.
“The whole game was stopping penetration,” said Shelley, whose team led 27-23 at halftime.
“When we got down five in the fourth quarter, we knew we would have to go man and we can’t guard them that way. All year we have had trouble guarding quick teams off the dribble. They are a really good shooting team so you have to extend on them in the zone. So if we back off on them, we let them have some open looks so we are kind of taking chances. We weren’t real fundamental with our defensive rotation at times. But give them credit; if a team can shoot and penetrate like that, they are tough to defend.”
Bechler’s shooting helped make PHS tough to beat down the stretch. “In practice, we do a three-point drill at the end of practice everyday; it is almost like I have to overload the other team because he is just lights out,” said Shelley of Bechler, who scored a team-high 16 points in the defeat to Lawrence.
“They [Bechler’s shots] don’t even hit the net when he gets in a zone like that. He has a quick release, he catches and gets set. There are a lot of fundamentals besides just the actual shot.”
In Shelley’s view, Bechler and his classmates gave a lot to the team this winter.
“They have been tremendous, just providing leadership both in word and deed,” said Shelley, referring to the team’s Class of 2013 which includes Elliott Golden, Ellis Bloom, Lior Levy, and Christian Giles in addition to Bechler.
“We were talking about some of them as freshmen, they were just so quiet and now to see them vocal and setting the tone in practice, it is great. We used that to challenge some of our juniors, Peter [Mahotiere] and Cal [O’Meara], who have been more role players this year, they are going to have to be vocal leaders next year.”
Shelley is looking forward to his second year at the helm of the PHS program.
“We have a real good group, we won’t have the dominant players like we do this year but we will have a real balanced group of 12 or 13 players,” said Shelley. “It will be a different team, we are going to be short.”
Bechler, for his part, was fired up to get two state tournament games with his group of classmates.
“We have been playing together for so long,” said Bechler. “We have been playing travel, we have been playing Dillon. We have been playing together for years so we realize that this could be our last week of organized basketball together so you don’t have to say anything else to get us going.”