April 7, 2004: Sports
Sports Web Exclusives! P-nut Gallery column
In the opening minutes of the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament game against Texas March 18, Princeton had several open shots from the perimeter, but few points to show for them, until Will Venable ’05 put some teeth into the Tigers’ offense. Slashing to the basket with aggressive drives, he scored seven unanswered points, giving Princeton the early lead. With inside help from Andre Logan ’05, key three-pointers from Judson Wallace ’05 and Luke Owings ’07, and solid halfcourt defense, Princeton carried a 25—23 advantage into halftime at the Pepsi Center in Denver.
But momentum quickly dwindled after intermission as Longhorn three-pointers poured down like a Texas hailstorm. Princeton’s lead turned into a 13-point deficit in eight minutes. Captain Ed Persia ’04, a Beaumont, Texas, native who had missed Princeton’s previous five games because of a bruised thigh, came off the bench and drained his first shot, a three-pointer from the right corner. But after closing to within eight, the Tigers faded in a 66—49 loss. “Things didn’t go our way,” Venable says, “but the heart was definitely there.”
On college basketball’s biggest stage, Venable showed the extraordinary range that Princeton followers had marveled at all season. The team’s leader in steals, assists, and field goal percentage, he scored 16 points and grabbed eight rebounds, both team highs, while playing a major role on defense. “He has had a heavy burden all year because we ask him to guard the other team’s primary offensive player, and he has a lot of responsibility on the offensive end,” says coach John Thompson ’88.
Venable is the embodiment of Thompson’s latest evolution of the Princeton offense – patient and unselfish, but also explosive and athletic. Thomp-son admits it’s not the old Princeton, which tormented tournament giants Georgetown and U.C.L.A. with backdoor cuts, but adds, “The principles we use are still the same – it’s still based on motion, it’s still based on sharing, it’s still based on having five skilled players.” And it still works. The Tigers won 13 of 14 in the Ivy League, including their last nine, and reached the 20-win plateau for the first time since 1999.
The Texas loss was one of five close games against major conference teams this season. In December, the Tigers closed to within one point in the second half at Duke before the Blue Devils took charge. They lost by four points or fewer at Rutgers, Oklahoma, and Minnesota. Persia, the team’s lone senior, expects an emphatic encore from his teammates. “They have a really bright future,” he said after the Texas loss. “This should just make them more hungry.”
Yasser El Halaby ’06 won his second consecutive national championship in MEN’S SQUASH March 7, sweeping 15 consecutive games en route to the title. Princetonians have won 17 College Squash Association men’s individual titles, including five of the last six.
At the Eastern Intercollegiate Swimming League Championships March 4—6, MEN’S SWIMMING won first place, claiming its second Ivy championship in three years. Will Reinhardt ’06, Juan Valdivieso ’04, and Meir Hasbani ’07 led the Tigers with individual victories.
Goalkeeper David Law ’06 made 15 saves as MEN’S LACROSSE edged defending N.C.A.A. champion Virginia 8—7 March 13. In WOMEN’S LACROSSE the top-ranked Tigers defeated their two Final Four foes from last season, beating Loyola 9—5 March 7 and Virginia 12—9 March 14.
BASEBALL swept a three-game set at Old Dominion March 5—7 and won two of three against Duke March 12—14 for its best start since 1989. SOFTBALL won three of four games to finish second in the University of California—Riverside Tournament March 13—14.
Brown scored two goals in the third period and one in overtime to eliminate WOMEN’S HOCKEY from the E.C.A.C. playoffs with a 3—2 win March 13. The Tigers tied last season’s school record of 20 wins.
Princeton dismissed MEN’S HOCKEY coach Len Quesnelle ’88 March 8, two days after the Tigers’ season ended with a 3—2 overtime loss to Rensselaer. As an assistant, Quesnelle helped the team to an E.C.A.C. championship in 1998, but his four years as head coach were less successful. He compiled a 29—84—11 record, finishing last in the league in 2003 and 2004. A national search for his successor is under way.
SPORTS ILLUSTRATED chose two Princeton men’s basketball games for its list of the 16 greatest N.C.A.A. tournament games since 1985. The Tigers’ 50-49 loss to Georgetown in 1989 ranked third, and their 43—41 win over defending-champion U.C.L.A. in 1996 ranked 11th. The Princeton games were the only first-round contests selected.