March 10, 2021

Samuels Savors Finale with PDS Boys’ Hoops, Feeling Strong Emotions as Panthers Top PHS

DAME TIME: Princeton Day School boys’ basketball player Dameon Samuels looks to pass the ball last week as PDS hosted Princeton High in its season finale. Senior hard Samuels went out with a bang, tallying 10 points with six assists, six rebounds, and four steals to help the Panthers defeat PHS 78-50. The victory left PDS with a final record of 7-3 for the 2021 campaign. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

With 3:19 left in the fourth quarter last Friday and the Princeton Day School boys’ basketball team rolling to a lopsided win over Princeton High, Dameon Samuels left the court for the last time in his career, prompting a flood of emotions.

The PDS senior guard embraced his coaches and started sobbing as he exited the contest. He later buried his head in his hands, watching the final minutes of the Panthers’ 78-50 win over their crosstown rivals.

“It was this is playing basketball all of your career, you don’t really want to see that last game,” said a red-eyed Samuels, reflecting on his curtain call.

“You want to keep playing and playing. When I came out, I thought of all the moments at PDS from freshman year to now and all of that coming to the end.”

Samuels was feeling emotional long before the Senior Day ceremony that took place before the game.

“All day, I have just been thinking about my career,” said Samuels.

“I try to play hard every single game. It is tough knowing that this is my last game here. These are all my brothers. I just love it, I just love basketball.”

Battling hard against crosstown rival, Samuels contributed 10 points, six assists, six rebounds, and four steals to help the Panthers cruise to the victory and end the winter at 7-3.

“I like to pass the ball, I feel better when I am passing the ball than scoring,” said Samuels.

“When my boy Bruno [Cucchi] scored the three in the fourth, I was hyped.”

Classmate and star center Ethan Garita has been the target of many passes from Samuels.

“I have known him since middle school,” said Samuels of Garita, who ended up with 16 points and 11 rebounds in the finale.

“We played with N.J. Connection so when he came here junior year, I already knew his game. That connection was easy.”

Over the years, Samuels has felt a deep connection to his teammates.

“It has always been a brotherhood over here,” said Samuels.

“It is always jokes and laughing in school and in practice. It is a lot of laughs and joking around. When it comes to being on the court, we are just trying to have fun.”

Looking back on the on-court highlights of his PDS career, Samuels pointed the state Prep B title that culminated the 2019-20 campaign.

“The state championship is the first thing that comes to my mind because the year before when I was a sophomore, we should have won it,” said Samuels.

“Next year we came back with essentially the same exact team and adding Ethan and won it. That is the main thing. Also freshman year, trying to prove myself and trying to make varsity with all of those hardworking moments in practice, battling and competing. It was all the fun moments and jokes; the jokes I will remember for a lifetime.”

Coming into his senior season, Samuels was determined to prove himself to new PDS head coach Eugene Burroughs.

“It was a new scheme and since he has coached NBA players and collegiate, he is trying to coach us like collegiate and pro players and we kind of have that step up,” said Samuels.

“I am not just a senior guard, I am trying to think like a collegiate guard or a pro guard, reading the screens and things like that.”

Coach Burroughs liked the way Samuels has stepped up this winter.

“He is a four-year varsity player so he has been in this program through the changes, two or three coaches, and seeing the program progress,” said Burroughs.

“It is fitting that he is emotional today, seeing that he has invested so much into the program. I was most impressed with his leadership that he brought throughout the year as a quiet kid. Whenever he said something it was impactful. That is progressing as a senior and coming to the stage where you make that next jump. That is what I am most proud of.”

Burroughs credited his senior quartet of Josh Colon, Bruno Cucchi, Garita, and Samuels with setting a positive tone for the Panthers.

“I really enjoyed this group; I think one of the things for me that I am most impressed with is that they got better as the season went on,” said Burroughs.

“It is always difficult when you have change and you don’t have a full schedule. They fought through the adversity of this year. They came every day to practice with energy. We have played some tight games and we found ways to win games down the stretch so those kids were great.”

The Panthers showed good energy against PHS, jumping out to a 22-8 first quarter lead and never looking back.

“We played well today,” said Burroughs. “In our last game, we won at Doane (56-53 on March 3) and it is a tough place. We played good basketball and it carried over into this game. I was happy to see our older kids step up and play with confidence.”

Burroughs was particularly happy with the way star center Garita played in the finale.

“I think it was Ethan’s best game of the year; I wish we had his mom here more often,” said Burroughs with a laugh.

“For him, it is the plays he made. He made some good basketball plays today, he was in the flow. I don’t think he really forced anything. He shared the ball, he passed it. He played a really confident game.”

The squad’s other seniors, Colon and Cucchi, also had nice games in the win.

“Josh is the rock, he knows where everyone is supposed to be,” said Burroughs of Colon, who had five points, three rebounds, three steals, and two assists against PHS.

“He knows every play. Bruno hit a three, which was great. He is a kid who hasn’t played basketball in three years but the best thing about him was his toughness and grit and energy. He brought a senior vibe and maturity to this group which I think they needed. Some of the kids play other sports and their culture is different. He is the soccer guy.”

Reflecting on the season overall, Burroughs liked the toughness his players displayed throughout.

“It was challenging, just figuring it out, I think 7-3 for us is a great year,” said Burroughs.

“We had some games that I think we could have pulled out. In that Peddie game (a 73-67 loss on February 25), we missed 12 lay-ups. Our kids got better; that is the thing for me. You see someone like Connor Topping come out of his shell today (a game-high 18 points on six 3-pointers). He has played great all year, playing defense and hustling. Offensively, he is still growing. We are losing guys and our younger kids have to get better. They did a great job.”

Having coached at the Division I college level and in the NBA and G-League, Burroughs enjoyed his first foray into high school coaching.

“It was fun; it was new for me and I am still learning,” said Burroughs.

“For me, it is figuring out new ways to do things with our guys. Each team is different. Every year you get a new crop of guys. Their strengths are different so trying to figure out that piece is going to be fun for me. I have never been around so many close games as a coach. Out of our ten games, we had five or six games decided in the last minute. I learn from them. Sometimes as a coach you have to change and figure out things for your audience.”

Samuels, for his part, dedicated himself to being a stronger player and leader this winter.

“It was just to get better,” said Samuels, who is looking to continue his career at the college level. “With a new coach, I was just trying to prove that I am a senior guard and I can handle it and lead this team with all of the other seniors.”