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(Photo by Bill Allen/NJ SportAction)

LAUNCHING PAD: Princeton Day School guard Dylan Leith launches a three-point shot last Sunday in the Panthers' 55-49 loss to Newark Academy in the state Prep B championship game. Leith fired in four three-pointers in the third quarter to spark a 14-0 run as the Panthers battled back from a 15-point deficit to turn the game into a nailbiter. Leith ended with a game-high 24 points as PDS finished the season with a 16-9 mark.
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PDS Boys' Hoops Dramatic Tourney Run Falls Short as Panthers Drop Title Game

By Bill Alden

With the Princeton Day School boys' basketball team trailing Newark Academy by 15 points midway through the third quarter last Sunday in the state Prep B title game, PDS guard Dylan Leith took matters into his hands.

The powerfully-built senior fired in four three-pointers in a period of minutes as the Panthers exploded for a 14-0 run that brought them back into the contest.

Leith added a three-pointer in the fourth quarter as the sixth-seeded Panthers fought the top-seeded Minutemen tooth and nail down the stretch in a game where the margin fluctuated between three and five points most of the quarter.

Leith's heroics, however, weren't quite enough as PDS ultimately fell 55-49, ending a dramatic state tourney run which had seen the Panthers post road wins against the No. 3 and No. 2 seeds (Morristown-Beard and Solomon Schecter) on the way to Sunday's final at South Brunswick High.

Afterward, a glum Leith explained that he was determined to do what he could to make sure that his high school basketball career didn't end with a defeat. "Desire to win, pure desire to win," said Leith, who ended up with a game-high 24 points with classmates Alex Sugiura adding 10 and Dave Pepperman chipping in nine. "We definitely didn't want to settle for second."

While obviously disappointed by the outcome Sunday, Leith said the positives of the season far outweighed the negatives. "The way we gelled especially toward the end is something we can be proud of," said Leith.

In Leith's view, a key factor underlying the team's success was the influence of rookie head coach Ahmed El-Nokali, a former star point guard at Princeton University who captained the Tigers in 2001-02.

"I think that without a doubt, he was the greatest addition to our team," said Leith, referring to El-Nokali who energized a program that had gone 10-11 last season. "He really brought a new style, he pushed us, he was always there to help us get better. From day one before he saw any of us play, he said we're going to play for the championship. That's going to be the goal of our season."

As El-Nokali reflected on his team falling just short of that goal, he had nothing but praise for the resolve of Leith and his teammates. "I think the guys showed tremendous character, not only in this game but all year," asserted El-Nokali, who guided the Panthers to a 16-9 record in his debut season in coaching.

"Especially in that third quarter, down double digits. There was no panic, they came down and ran our offense. Dylan had the hot hand. He brought us back with his 3's. He has all year." El-Nokali acknowledged that it took a while for things to get in sync after he took the helm. "We started the season and everything was new, a new system and everything," recalled El-Nokali. "It was a difficult adjustment period. It seemed like after Christmas, everything clicked."

By mid-February, the senior-laden team was clicking on all cylinders. "They made so many strides this year, it was something special," added El-Nokali. "These guys never gave up. A couple of wins on the road and everybody started believing. No one thought we had a shot to win this game, those guys were the only ones who believed they could win this game."

For El-Nokali, who played in the 2001 NCAA men's basketball tournament with Princeton and was on Western Pennsylvania champions during his high school days in the Pittsburgh area, this season will hold a special place in his heart. "This has been one of the best seasons I've had," maintained the 6'4 El-Nokali with a smile. "It's more fulfilling as a coach than as a player. I wanted these guys to win so bad. It was almost a movie-like atmosphere."

Leith, for his part, focused on the relationships forged as the team rebounded from its setbacks. "I think we grew closer from the losses and trying to pick each other up," said Leith. "I think we definitely came together. At the end we got close as a team from the last kid on the bench."

Although the Panthers didn't produce a Hollywood ending like "Hoosiers," they scripted a season they won't soon forget.

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