Last winter, the Princeton High boys’ basketball team opened the season by dropping an overtime nailbiter at Hopewell Valley.
As PHS tipped off its 2013-14 campaign at Allentown, it found itself facing a similar scenario, trailing the Redbirds 21-16 at halftime.
“We weren’t playing with energy and confidence,” said second-year PHS head coach Mark Shelley, reflecting on his team’s first half performance in the opener on December 20.
“Their length was bothering us, they are very tall. We were standing around a little bit and not challenging them on defense at times.”
This year, the Little Tigers were up to the opening night challenge as they rallied for a 44-38 victory.
“We scored the first six or seven points of the second half to take the lead and then they came back to take the lead,” said Shelley, who got 20 points from junior guard Kevin Kane in the win with senior Peter Mahotiere adding nine points and senior Callahan O’Meara chipping in seven.
“We came right back and got six points in a row; I like how we responded. It was a good showing for us on the road in an opener. Last year, we opened at HoVal and we got a late lead but we missed our free throws and made some turnovers. This year we got a three-point lead and extended it.”
Unfortunately, PHS couldn’t build on that performance as they fell 65-41 at Morristown High three days later. The team dug a 48-16 hole at halftime, prompting the normally affable Shelley to read his players the riot act.
“That was about as frustrated as I have been in 10 years of coaching,” recalled Shelley.
“It is a total credit to Morristown, they are a very good basketball team. To score 16 points in a half is bad and to give up 48 points in a half is bad but to do both in the same half is really bad.” In the second half, the Little Tigers settled down as they outscored Morristown 25-17.
“We were just trying to win the third and fourth quarters, that is all you can do at that point,” said Shelley, who got 13 points from Kane in the defeat with Mahotiere adding 11.
“We played our zones and traps and did a better job. We drove to the basket instead of just settling for jumpers. We stopped them better in transition. We learned that we have to play all four quarters. We can compete with anyone but we are not good enough to just show up and win.”
Junior guard Kane has shown major improvement this winter. “We put Kevin on the varsity as a sophomore, knowing that he was not going to play very much; it is paying off now,” asserted Shelley.
“He got to practice against Ellis [Bloom] and Scotty [Bechler] all year and I think that is really helping him this year. He has always had the ability to shoot; he may be the purest shooter I have ever coached. He is playing defense much better; he knows what he is doing out there. He is also not forcing shots. He is putting the ball on the floor and he is going to the line and getting points that way. Teams will have to respect that.”
Shelley believes his front line players are going to be earning the respect of PHS’s foes this season.
“I am happy with our starting five, they are starting to separate themselves,” said Shelley, who has been going with Kane, Mahotiere, and O’Meara, along with sophomore Matt Hart and senior Paul Murray.
“Cal has shown that he is versatile. He hasn’t been scoring but he has played point guard and he can rebound. Matt does so many things that don’t show up in the box score. I have real confidence in the starting five.”
With PHS starting 2014 action by hosting Trenton Central on January 2 and then playing at Robbinsville on January 4, Shelley knows that his team needs to tighten things up to be successful.
“We need to work on improving collectively and individually,” said Shelley. “Most of our systems are in and we have to work on our fundamentals to get ready for Trenton and Robbinsville. We have plenty of room for improvement. It is a resilient group.”