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(Photo by Bill Allen/NJ SportAction)

GOOD GOD: Princeton Day School sophomore star Drew Godwin drives in for a hoop in the Panthers' 68-27 romp over Ranney School on December 3. PDS, now 3-0, hosts Timothy Christian on December 17, plays at Allentown on December 19, and then hosts Hopewell Valley on December 22.
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Stifling Defense, Offensive Balance Spells Success for PDS Boys' Hoops

By Bill Alden

After taking the reins of the Princeton Day School boys' basketball team earlier this fall, Ahmed El-Nokali's first goal was to get his charges to buy into his emphasis on defense. El-Nokali's message has apparently resonated as his club has utilized a stifling defense to get off to a 3-0 start. In the team's three games, it is giving up a stingy 36.7 points a game while scoring at a rate of 59.7 per contest. For El-Nokali, the first three games of his coaching career couldn't have gone much better. "There have been a lot of positive signs," said El-Nokali, whose club won 62-47 at George School on December 9 and then posted a 49-36 win at Academy of the New Church a day later.

"Getting back-to-back wins on the road in two days showed me a lot about this team. I'm seeing unselfish play and a lot of hard work."

With his club off to a stellar start, the young coach, a former star point guard at Princeton University who captained the Tigers in the 2001-02 season, is going to stay the course when it comes to focusing on the basics.

"I will keep stressing defense, " said El-Nokali. "On some nights the shots aren't going to be dropping in but the defensive intensity can always be there. You can put it on my tombstone ‹ defense, rebounding, and taking care of the ball."

The quick start was critical for the program on several levels, according to El-Nokali. "Winning early is important, it helps a team gain momentum," asserted El-Nokali.

"Going into the year my biggest fear was that we would lose early and they would lose confidence in what I'm telling them. I don't have to keep preaching about the defense now, they can see that it works. I can see them gaining more confidence as they practice."

Probably the most heartening aspect of the team's early season play for El-Nokali has been the Panthers' balance. "We don't have one star," explained El-Nokali. "Everyone who has played has contributed."

A look at the stat sheets from the first three games bears out El-Nokali's analysis. In the team's season-opening 68-27 win over Ranney, David Pepperman led the team with 17 points while Andrew Davidson chipped in 14.

In the win over George School, Dylan Leith poured in 24 points and Drew Godwin added 15. The triumph over Academy of the New Church saw Pepperman lead the way with 13 points while Godwin had 10.

Beyond the scoring, Alex Sugiura has been a consistent force on the boards while Rajeev Sharma has provided a solid floor game, highlighted by his five steals and seven assists in the win over George.

The team's cohesive play and intensity has El-Nokali hoping that the 3-0 start is just the tip of the iceberg. "These guys are rallying around each other," said El-Nokali, whose club hosts Timothy Christian on December 17, plays at Allentown on December 19, and then hosts Hopewell Valley on December 22. "It could be a special season, these guys really want it."

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