About 10 years ago, Kyle Wente emerged as an indispensable player for the Princeton University basketball team.
The 6’4 Wente, though, didn’t dazzle you with a silky smooth jump shot or flashy moves to the hoop.
Instead, the understated guard gave the Tigers steadiness and filled up the stat sheet by doing a little bit of everything. As a senior in 2002-03, he averaged 5.9 points, 3.5 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 1.9 steals a game.
This year’s Tiger squad appears to have found its version of Wente in 6’5 sophomore guard T.J. Bray.
As the season has gone on, the Tigers have been relying more and more on Bray to provide stability and be a jack-of-all-trades.
Last Wednesday evening at Rider University, Bray showed his worth to the Tigers, scoring 11 points with eight rebounds, two assists, and two steals as Princeton rallied for a thrilling 72-71 overtime victory over the Broncs before 1650 at Alumni Gymnasium.
Significantly, Bray didn’t leave the court for a second of the 45-minute contest.
Afterward, Bray acknowledged that he is developing a comfort level in his first season as a starter.
“My teammates have a lot of confidence in me to do good things,” said Bray, a native of New Berlin, Wisc. who was named the state and conference player of the year as a senior at Catholic Memorial High.
“When my teammates have confidence, it makes my job so much easier. We have shooters everywhere; it just makes life easier when you have good players around you.”
Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson said that Bray is making his life easier, asserting that he plans to keep the sophomore on the court as much as possible.
“He’s not coming out,” said Henderson. “We need balance and T.J. is a good part of the balance because he is making all the passes too. He’s making guys better; that is a big key for Princeton players.”
In Henderson’s view, Bray’s style is reminiscent of Wente. “He’s got a mind for the game; any limits that he has physically; he makes up for with brains for the game,” said Henderson, who got another strong game from Bray last Sunday as he scored 12 points with three assists and two steals as Princeton topped Northeastern 71-62 to improve to 6-6 and post its fifth win in its last six games.
“The Kyle Wente comparison is right on. Kyle got his hand on more passes as a Princeton player. He was always in the right spot; he stole more 2-on-1s when he was the one guy back. That is a T.J. Bray thing. The numbers really favor T.J. when we are doing well; he seems to be filling up the stat sheet.”
The numbers didn’t favor Princeton early in the Rider game as the Tigers found themselves trailing 36-20 with just under five minutes left in the half. Stepping up its defensive effort, Princeton went on a 13-2 run to narrow the gap to 38-33 at the half.
“I thought that was a huge key to the game for us,” said Henderson, reflecting on that stretch to end the half. “They didn’t score. and we started playing the way we want to play. We can’t come out the way we did tonight and win many games.
Bray acknowledged that Princeton came out flat. “We got down big early because we didn’t come to play and then coach said ‘hey guys you are not playing defense’ and to be honest we weren’t,” recalled Bray.
“We were not helping each other out. Once we started helping each other out, that’s when things started clicking on offense and that’s when we started to make a run.”
In the second half, both teams made furious runs in the topsy-turvy contest. The Tigers went on a late 19-8 run to go ahead 65-61 with 34 seconds left in regulation but the Broncs responded by scoring four unanswered points to force overtime.
In the extra session, Rider took a 71-69 lead with 20 seconds left and then missed two free throws that could have put the game out of reach. Princeton got the ball with eight seconds left and pulled out the game in dramatic fashion as Douglas Davis kicked the ball out to Mack Darrow who drained a three-pointer at the buzzer.
Henderson recognized that the Tigers were lucky to escape up Route 206 with a victory.
“We were very fortunate tonight,” said Henderson, whose team is next in action when it plays at Siena on December 22. “I thought Rider played very well and we just happened to have the ball in our hands when time ran out and Mack made a huge shot.”
Darrow knew he was fortunate to end up as the star of the evening. “I was kind of expecting Doug to be the hero like always,” said Darrow, who missed his three previous shots in the game.
“I just kind of stood still and let him rub off my screen and I figured I would let him do his thing. I walked in to get a better look at his buzzer beater and it turns out I found one. It was a little bit crazy; that is a good feeling.”
For Bray, it is a good feeling to see his hard work paying off. “Coach has had me coming do for shots; I am getting more shots up just about every day, “ said Bray. “Confidence comes with that, just working hard and putting the extra time in.”