Sports: March 10, 1999
Miracle at the Palestra
Princeton comes back to beat Penn in the game of the year
February 9 at the Palestra. An hour before game time, Brian Earl '99 slouches in a courtside seat and watches the Penn team warm up. Off the court, Earl has a distinctive languor -- he's always leaning against something, or slumping in his chair as if he's saving all his energy for those moments when he has a basketball in his hand. But while his body may be at rest, his eyes, burning with the same intense stare that is his trademark on the court, are locked on the Penn players. And Penn looks good -- their starters are hitting shots from all over the court. After watching them for five minutes, Earl stands and goes back out to practice. He misses the first shot and curses to himself: he knows that he needs to shoot better this night.
Princeton and Penn have just finished Pretender's weekend, showing Dartmouth that just because you've gone 6-0 against the rabble of the Ivy League does not necessarily mean you can win at Jadwin or the Palestra. Dartmouth did hang with Penn before falling 69-57, but Princeton played perhaps its best game of the year in crushing the Green 76-48. Princeton and Penn, therefore, enter the game with matching 6-0 records in the league and the usual prize at stake -- win the Ivies and go to the tournament, lose and hope for an NIT bid. And even though Sports Illustrated has sent a writer to the game to write about the injustice of that rule, nothing's likely to change this year. That's one of the reasons why Penn-Princeton could be the most intense basketball rivalry in the country -- after all, if North Carolina gets swept by Duke, it's still probably going to make the NCAAs.
Despite the Tigers' convincing victory over Dartmouth, coach Bill Carmody is worried before the game. He does have some legitimate concerns. Point guard C.J. Chapman '01 is in a shooting slump, and it's affecting the rest of his game. "He's not even fouling guys," Carmody says. Senior Gabe Lewullis's knees are not good, to say the least, and Chris Krug '02 and Mason Rocca '00 are locked in an uneasy rotation at the other forward spot. "Sometimes I wonder up until the jump ball what kind of game we're going to have," Earl says.
Player introductions. The crowd, which seems even more rabid than usual, saves its loudest jeers for Earl. The team comes back to the huddle as the entire Penn student section chants, "F -- you, Princeton." This is apparently the peak of cleverness in Philadelphia. (After the game Gary Walters '67, director of athletics, will call Penn to complain about both the cheers and a few signs that question the sexual orientation of several Princeton players.) As Carmody talks to the tight huddle of Princeton players, Earl is chewing gum. "I wasn't really worried," Earl says. "But I was wondering how the young guys would respond."
Princeton gets off to a good start as Earl makes an early three, but things quickly fall apart. Princeton turns the ball over and misses several open shots while Penn hits a free throw, a three, and two layups to go up 8-3. The Quaker crowd, loud during player introductions, is now deafening. A shot by Penn's Michael Jordan hits the back of the iron, and kicks off the front of the rim straight up in the air. Jordan is already running back up court when the ball finally falls through the net: 11-3. Earl brings the ball up, and Jordan jumps in his way at half court. Earl dribbles behind his back and cuts to his left, but Jordan slides over in his way. Inexplicably, the referee calls a charge. Earl smiles wryly. "At that point," he says, "I was just thinking: what else can happen here?"
He quickly finds out. Penn gets three quick baskets, and since Mason Rocca '00 hasn't provided his usual lift, Carmody replaces the struggling Chapman with seldom-used Phil Belin '00. With Belin in the game, Earl is the only true guard on the court for Princeton. It's not a new role for him. This season, Earl has become the de facto point guard, running the offense and driving to the basket far more frequently than in previous years. "My role in the offense used to be that I either took a three- pointer or cut for a backdoor layup," he says, "but a lot has changed. Now I enjoy taking the pull-up jumper even more than shooting threes." Carmody admits that in the absence of Mitch Henderson '98, Earl is "kind of our point guard now. He's always been a good dribbler, always seen the court well and passed well, but in the past we had other people to do some of those things." In the Dartmouth game, Earl had played his new role beautifully, handing out nine assists without turning the ball over.
But against Penn, Earl and the offense are struggling. The team, which finishes the half having shot just 2-18 from the field, repeatedly misses open shots and turns the ball over. Even worse, the Quakers are hitting everything, and the margin steadily grows. At 26-3, Penn's Paul Romanczuk makes a driving layup and is fouled. After he hits the free throw, the run is now 29 points. So this is what it feels like to root for Brown. I write my lead, "Princeton was due for one of these games. You just hoped it wouldn't be against Penn." As the Tigers come back down the court, the Penn student section rhythmically taunts, "You have three points." The faces up in Princeton's small student section just under the rafters are stricken -- losing to Penn is bad enough; being humiliated is like reading about the Nude Olympics in The New York Times.
Fourteen minutes of game time have passed since Earl's three when Chris Young '02 is fouled under the basket. He makes the first free throw, and the Penn crowd cheers sarcastically. For the last five minutes of the half, the teams trade baskets, and the Tigers head into the locker room down 33-9. Carmody doesn't say much at halftime. He doesn't have to. "There was no pep talk," Earl says. "It was obvious. We were getting killed -- the offense was horrible, the defense was horrible. I was upset with myself and the team."
The second half opens the way the first half ended, as the two teams trade baskets for five minutes. With 15:11 left, Jordan hits a three to put the Quakers up by 27 points. The reporter next to me says, "That's the nail in the coffin." Rocca, however, answers with a three of his own. Up in the student section, George from Hoagie Haven turns to Lewullis's sister and predicts that Princeton is going to come back. He might be the only believer in the Palestra -- after all, Princeton's backcourt is a mess, Lewullis is playing on heart alone, and Young is shooting 1-9 and about to pick up his fourth personal foul.
But Earl steals the ball and hits a three, the beginning of a 23-2 Princeton run over the next nine minutes. Lewullis repeatedly jumps into Penn's passing lanes, getting three steals and tipping the ball several other times. After one steal he outruns the whole Penn team on those aching knees to the basket. Carmody, who was confident that his team would make a run at some point, knew that his two seniors would have to provide the spark. "I don't think [Earl and Lewullis] believed they were going to win," he says, "but they wanted to show that they could play. And I know the younger guys fed off of that."
The run moves in slow motion, and the Penn crowd starts nervously watching the clock as the lead shrinks. Princeton pulls within nine on a huge offensive rebound and putback by Rocca (shown at left), who is playing the second half like he's auditioning for the William Wallace role in Braveheart. "It was like an imperceptible riptide," Walters says. "You couldn't see it on the surface, but it was dragging them out and dragging us in." So when Earl nails a long three to pull Princeton within 6 with 6:42 remaining, the run toward respectability has become something entirely dif-ferent. "You could see it on their faces," Earl says. "They knew it wasn't over. And you could see on our faces that we wanted the ball."
On the Quakers' next possession, Jordan, perhaps sensing the danger, drives to the basket. He's bumped, but looking like his namesake, he hangs in the air long enough to make the shot. The crowd explodes with understandable relief. Penn's lead is back to nine and Princeton must have exhausted itself on that improbable run. The Tigers have been pressing, and while Penn coach Fran Dunphy has been rotating his players heavily, Earl and Lewullis have played their usual marathon minutes. Can they have any gas left? The answer comes quickly. Earl drives into the lane, dribbles behind his back, and takes a 12-foot hanging jump shot that hits the front of the rim. The ball kicks back toward the foul line, and Earl, following his shot, slides his lithe body between two hulking Penn forwards and grabs the rebound. He kicks the ball back out to the point and then slips back behind the arc. A moment later the ball is back in his hands, and he catches and shoots in one smooth motion, his body leaning backward and his heels clicking together at the top of his jump: 45-39.
Twice, Penn scores, and twice, Princeton answers. Young nails an eight-footer and then steals the ball on the next play. "I could see in Young's eyes that he was feeling different," Carmody says. Princeton patiently moves the ball around the arc, and with the defense closing on Earl, Young takes a three. Good: Penn leads 49-46. On Penn's next possession, Matt Langel gets into the lane, but travels. Princeton ball, TV timeout. En masse, the Penn student section sits down, and suddenly the only noise in the Palestra is coming from the Tiger corner. In the huddle, Carmody tells his charges, "Hey guys, let's not do anything weird, okay?" He's too late -- they're already doing something weird. Princeton, which hasn't hit a single backdoor all day, has exploded for 37 points in 15 minutes. As his team takes the court after the timeout, Carmody turns toward the crowd and says into space, "You know, we might actually pull this sonofagun off."
Princeton inbounds, and with time running down on the shot clock, Earl fakes a three, gets his defender in the air, and then drives toward the basket. He loses another two defenders with a hesitation dribble, and nails the layup. Penn turns the ball over. Young, who has been having trouble getting to the basket around Geoff Owens, launches a sweeping Kevin McHale hook -- the bow-and-arrow in this era of nuclear dunks. But arrows can still kill: 50-49. Princeton leads with two minutes left. Princeton leads!
Both teams then look tight at the foul line. Penn goes 0-3, and Rocca misses the front end of a one-and-one. Penn gets the ball back with 17 seconds left, still down 49-50, and Dunphy puts the ball in Jordan's hands. Ahmed El-Nokali '02, who's played a gem on defense in the second half, stays in front of Jordan until, with seven seconds on the clock, Jordan drives to the free-throw line. Earl, who is guarding his old friend Matt Langel, jumps over on Jordan, and the Penn guard makes an awkward pass to the now-open Langel. With five seconds left, Langel drives right, rises, and takes a 15-foot jump shot for the game -- the best look any Penn player has gotten at the basket in the half. Just short. The ball kicks along the baseline, Lewullis tips it, and the smallest player left on the floor, Earl, goes up and gets the rebound. As the horn sounds, Earl runs to the center of the Palestra, his hands reaching up to the impossible scoreboard. And I'm standing on the press table, waving an orange shirt and looking like an unprofessional rube while the Tiger reserves storm onto the court. From my perch I see El-Nokali has his arm around Earl. The Tiger captain's face is buried in his palms; the ice has finally melted.
Most of the Penn players don't shake hands, they just run for the locker room, and while the Palestra leaks red-and-blue-clad mourners as quickly as its ancient doors will allow, orange shirts and hats gather around the Princeton band in the rafters and dance to "Louie, Louie." "This is the best game I've ever seen," Chauncy Pilgrim '99 shouts over the din. "To come back the way they did -- it was even better than UCLA!" Pat Krug '92, who was in Philadelphia to root for his brother Chris, says, "I looked down and saw my 82-year-old grandmother dancing on the floor of the Palestra with the Princeton Tiger mascot. And, I mean, getting down and funky."
Beneath the stands in the press room, Dunphy, Jordan, and Romanczuk face a line of hungry reporters. Dunphy, his mustache quivering, says, "I've seen a couple games like that, but never been involved in one." He pauses. "It was a pretty remarkable turn of events." Jordan, usually so affable in press conferences, answers questions in a quiet monotone, his face a mask. "I wasn't going to let them see me cry," he later says.
Ten minutes later, Carmody and four of his jubilant players have recharged the atmosphere in the small room. "I'm just proud of these guys," Carmody says. "All those things you preach about not quitting..." his voice trails off. The game has finished that sentence for him. In a corner of the room, Earl slumps against a wall, his body lax once again. "I've played in some huge games," he says, "but that was like a storybook ending. Those last couple seconds -- I don't think I've ever felt that emotion. When I grabbed that last rebound I just collapsed. I'd given everything." A reporter asks another player if the team is going to celebrate later that night. The player just smiles. (He doesn't know that when the players get back to campus, the one open eating club, Tiger Inn, will claim it's "members and passes only" and refuse to let the team in the door. Apparently the largest comeback in school history -- fourth in NCAA history -- isn't credentials enough.)
Back in the arena, a few Tiger fans still sit in their seats savoring the moment. Debris covers the Penn student section: newspapers, signs, and confetti abandoned by the fleeing crowd. As Carmody chats with friends by the Princeton bench, a Penn player cuts across the floor from the home locker room. His eyes still wet, he shakes Carmody's hand. "Coach," he says, "I want to apologize for walking off the court without shaking hands." A moment later he's gone.
When Earl finally finishes with the reporters, he walks back out onto the Palestra floor and the small crowd claps as he hugs his family. He chats for a few minutes and then walks across the Palestra floor to the locker room. Just before he rounds the corner, he pauses and glances up at the now-dark scoreboard as if to confirm what he had done.
-- Wes Tooke '98
Princeton quickly lost the advantage it had gained in the Palestra by losing two tough games. The Tigers' 35-game Ivy win streak ended with a 60-58 loss to Yale in double overtime on February 12. After beating Brown 67-45 and Dartmouth 65-51, the team fell to Harvard in single overtime 87-79. Penn's only loss in the league remains its game against Princeton, and, unless Penn is upset next weekend, the Tigers must sweep their three remaining games against Columbia, Cornell, and Penn to force a one-game playoff against the Quakers at Lehigh on March 5. "It's going to be tougher from here," Gabe Lewullis '99 says, "but we're still in the [race]." This issue went to press on February 22.
Women's hockey in postseason
At the conclusion of a 4-1 win against St. Lawrence on February 13, the members of the playoff-bound Princeton women's hockey team shook the hands of the vanquished Saints, then methodically proceeded to the locker room. There was no loudspeaker announcement that the Tigers had just qualified for the postseason, no champagne corks ricocheting off lockers, no Kool and the Gang songs blaring from the locker-room stereo.
"All I was thinking was what a lousy weekend we'd had," says assistant captain Danya Marshman '00, who, despite the victories, was unhappy with the way the team had played. But wins are wins, and the sixth-place Tigers desperately needed a pair to snap out of a three-game losing skid and resurrect preseason hopes of finishing in the upper echelon of the ECAC. Eight teams qualify for the playoffs, and the team knows it could finish anywhere from second to eighth place in the logjam behind first-place Harvard.
The Tigers had struggled in their first four games following exam break, defeating only Boston College 6-2 while losing to Dartmouth 7-1, Providence 4-3, and Brown 7-0. "When you play crappy games you lose confidence," Marshman says. Marshman, who sports what she calls a Monroe -- a pierced upper lip in the location of the actress Marilyn's mole -- wants the team to develop the confidence and consistency of a DiMaggio.
The Tigers began to recapture that quality in a crucial home game against Cornell, which entered the contest just a hair below Princeton in the standings. Rookie forwards Jess Fedderly '02 and Melissa Deland '02 staked the Tigers to a 2-0 lead, and after Cornell scored, forward Ali Coughlin '99 potted her team-high 16th tally and provided breathing room in an eventual 3-2 victory. Earlier in the week, Coughlin learned that she had been named a finalist for the Patty Kazmaier ['85] Award, given to the top player in collegiate women's hockey.
The game against ninth-place St. Lawrence was the next day. Early in the second period, the teams were locked in a 1-1 battle. That's when head coach Jeff Kam-persal '92 reunited his top scoring line of Coughlin, Abbey Fox '01 and leading point-scorer Andrea Kil-bourne '02. The match-making paid off as the trio notched the next two goals, and defenseman Dani Holt-schlag '00 added an empty-netter for the 4-1 playoff-clinching win. "A lot of hockey is about chemistry. If things aren't going well, Jeff will switch the lines up," said Holtschlag, the restrained, self-proclaimed "polar opposite" of fellow assistant captain Marshman.
As the postseason approaches, Kampersal is emphasizing a return to basics: dumping the puck in, skating hard, putting shots on goal. It is the formula that produced victories earlier in the season against strong Brown and Northeastern squads. For their part, Holtschlag and Marshman would like to see the team improve its focus and attention to detail.
"It's all discipline at this point," Holtschlag says. "It's a matter of being mentally tough. We have to step up, knowing that there's pressure." Adds Marshman, "Jeff has already given us everything. It's a matter of taking those things and mastering them. You take a power play -- one weak pass off a stick can ruin it. It's a matter of solidifying, making perfect. This is the time to peak."
Meanwhile, the celebration can wait.
-- Mike Jackman '92
Swimming splits at H-Y-Ps, looks ahead to Easterns
If there is a better way to go into the Ivy League Swimming Championships than on the heels of a dominant victory in the H-Y-P meet, the Tiger women would love to know about it. Coach Susan Teeter's squad owned the pool in New Haven on February 6, beating Harvard 189-111 and topping the host Elis 186-114 in the Tigers' last competition before the February 25-27 league championships.
The standout performance of the meet belonged to freshman Jenny Macaulay. The native of Etobicoke, Ontario brought home three first-place finishes, in the 100-meter breaststroke (1:05.45), the 200-meter breaststroke (2:19.60), and the 200-meter individual medley (2:06.00). "She's a real talent," Teeter says. "Most of the kids say, 'I'm glad she's on my team, because I wouldn't want to swim against her.'"
The Tigers had prepared for the meet without the shave-and-taper process common for big events. "If we had shaved everyone for the H-Y-P meet, the chances of us coming back two and a half weeks later for the Ivy championships and being good would have been much smaller," Teeter says. "You have to hope as a coach that you can motivate your athletes enough without the shave that they can get up against swimmers who might be shaved and win."
The upcoming Ivy Championships will give Brown a chance to seek revenge for their 157-139 loss to the Tigers in the December Princeton Invitational. "Brown is the team to beat at the Ivy Championships," Teeter says. "They've been the winner for the past three years. I think we kind of woke them up. It's definitely theirs to win and ours to take away from them."
The Tigers will have more than their usual cadre of supporters at the meet, which is celebrating the Silver Anniversary of women's championships in the Ivy League. "We have a large number of alumni coming back, some who will be seeing DeNunzio Pool for the first time," Teeter says. "We've also picked our own [all-time] Silver Anniversary swimming and diving team, and I would say 95 percent of that team is coming back to see the meet."
The H-Y-P meet was not a happy one for the men's team, which lost to both challengers. Princeton ended the meet with 89 points to Harvard's 205 and Yale's 198. Most of the Tigers' top swimmers made the strategic decision not to shave for the meet, which proved costly. A bright spot was junior Andy Shyong, who won both the one-meter and three-meter diving competitions with scores of 259.40 and 276.25, respectively. The men hope their decision not to shave will pay off at Easterns, scheduled for March 4-6 at Harvard.
-- Rob Garver
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