Sports: April 7, 1999

Once more into the breach
The Tigers advance to the quarterfinals of the NIT

The eulogies came too soon. Just when you thought an era was over, the men's basketball team, banished to the NIT, somehow managed to extend its wonderful four-year run by beating another pair of traditional basketball powerhouses. "We may not be in the NCAAs," Brian Earl '99 said, "but you have to get excited about playing some of these teams."

The first game was against Georgetown -- a rematch of the 50-49 Hoya win that is now part of college basketball lore -- only this time the Tigers, as the higher seed, got to play at Jadwin. Both the seeding and the matchup seemed too ironic to be unintentional. Before the game, one reporter, who covers Georgetown for a Washington paper, admitted that he'd thought the chance of Princeton ever holding a home-court advantage over the Hoyas in his lifetime was "smaller than a snowflake's chance on a stovetop in hell."

As the teams shot around before the game, the differences between the two teams were as obvious as ever. The Tigers, wearing their retro-'70s' warmups with their bell-bottom pants, looked a little like extras in Saturday Night Fever. The Georgetown players were in all-black warmups with baggy pants that kept falling down and hooded sweatshirts. And even though their team was having a down year, the Hoya players still appeared breathtakingly athletic -- jumping up to the rim and generally looking like the high-school all-star team they are. But some things had changed; when the teams were announced, Princeton's starting five was as big as Georgetown's.

The game wasn't a sellout as the pack of well-off alumni from New York, who had been offering $500 a ticket a week earlier against Penn, had mostly disappeared. Coach Bill Carmody, wearing a sharp blue suit, was ready for national television. The two teams were not. The first half was an ugly affair, as both teams missed open shots; the half ended with Princeton up 23-19. The teams stayed close through the second half, with the Tigers clinging to their lead, and the quality of the basketball improved. Both Chris Young '02 and Mason Rocca '00 played impressive post defense on Georgetown's athletic front line, and for a while it seemed like Rocca was getting every loose ball. By the time the game was over he would have 18 rebounds -- the most for a Prince-ton player in a game since Bill Bradley '65 had 21 against Columbia in 1965. "I can't think of anyone we played against who was a better rebounder," Georgetown coach Craig Esherick later said.

As the second half slowly waned, it suddenly became obvious that Prince-ton had yet to make a substitution. In fact, while Georgetown made 56 substitutions, Princeton's five starters -- Earl, Young, Rocca, Gabe Lewullis '99, and Ahmed El-Nokali '02 -- all played the full 40 minutes against a pressing Georgetown defense. "Why would they be tired?" Carmody asked after the game. "We get two-and-a-half-minute timeouts [for TV commercials] every four minutes."

With less than a minute remaining in the game, Princeton led 50-47, and Georgetown needed two points for the universe to achieve cosmic perfection. But Princeton's tired starters made their free-throws, and the final score was 54-47. After the game, the Princeton players were nonplussed by their victory. "Us beating Georgetown isn't that big anymore," Lewullis said. "The program has come a long way in that regard."


North Carolina State

The Tigers' second game was at North Carolina State, a university which, in addition to having a long and proud tradition of basketball, also bears the unfortunate distinction of being John Tesh's alma mater. Although the Wolfpack finished fifth in the ACC this year, their only home losses this year were to Maryland, North Carolina, and Duke. The sellout crowd was deafening at the opening tip, but settled into being merely loud as the Tigers opened the game on a 10-5 run. A small cadre of Princeton supporters, led by the women's lacrosse team and the band, did its best to be heard over the sellout crowd of 12,400.

But the Wolfpack went on a 12-point run of their own, and the crowd quickly became almost unbearably loud once again. With seven minutes left in the half, Carmody sent C.J. Chapman '01 into the game for El-Nokali. Chapman promptly hit a three-pointer, and the pendulum swung back to the Tigers, who closed out the half on a 17-2 run to take a 27-19 lead into the locker room. The undeniable hero of the first half was Young, who had 16 points and had hit three of four shots from three-point range. "It's a confidence thing with him," Earl says of Young. "He used to try and figure things out too much. Now he's just playing and taking shots."

The second half was a far less streaky affair as the Tigers lead hung around 10 points. Chapman hit a pair of clutch three-pointers, and Young brought his superb outside play from the first half into the low post, blocking four shots, altering several others, and sinking two hooks and a layup. This was the second straight game where Young had more than held his own against the big, athletic post players of the larger conferences -- and further proof that his late-season surge was not merely a product of playing against smaller Ivy League opponents. In short, it was a coming-out party. "You can't back down from anybody," Young said after the game. "I know I can't be timid and expect to succeed."

With 55 seconds left in the game, Princeton was up by seven points, but the Wolfpack hit two free throws and, after the Tigers turned the ball over, tipped in an errant three-point attempt to draw within three with 48 seconds left. NC State elected to play defense rather than foul, and with four seconds left on the shot clock, Earl hit an impossible leaner in the lane to ice the game. "That's the kind of shot a senior makes," Carmody said. The final score was 61-58. After the game, Earl stood in the locker room with a certain gleam in his eye: the look of someone who has realized his basketball mortality. "This is what I live for," he said. "I know these last four years have been really special for me and the university."

Two nights later, the Tigers' season and Earl's college basketball career ended with a 65-58 loss to Xavier in the quarterfinals. Princeton looked sharp in rolling to a 12-point halftime lead but looked tired in the second half. The run -- this year's run -- was over, but the Tigers had proved once again that they can beat teams from the finest conferences in the nation. "Six or seven years ago we were close to teams like this," Carmody said after the NC State game. "Now we win our share." For the past four years, many of those wins have been because of Earl and Lewullis. Now that they have left the court on a befittingly surprising and graceful note, Princeton can only hope that players like Chris Young will help maintain the standard that they have set.

-- Wes Tooke '98


Women's lacrosse relies on Samaras

She limped into the stadium. She limped at halftime. She limped in the locker room when it was over with a bag of ice wrapped around her leg. While she was in the game, however, senior captain Christi Samaras, still feeling the effects of an ACL tear in her left knee that had required surgery, half-carried, half-dragged her teammates to a hard-fought 13-7 win over 14th-ranked Rutgers at Princeton Stadium.

Before the game, there was speculation that Samaras's injury had allowed for the development of other scorers (among them Tice Burke '99, Courtney Booth '99, and Julie Shaner '01), but in the first half it was largely Samaras who kept an inspired Rutgers team from running away with the game. "Rutgers came out with nothing to lose and something to prove," Princeton coach Chris Sailer said. "Until halftime, they wanted it more than we did."

Even in their somewhat uninterested first half, the Tigers showed superior talent and a more coordinated attack than Rutgers, passing crisply and creating scoring chances, but they were unable to match the Scarlet Knights' fire. It was Rutgers winning balls in the air, it was Rutgers throwing themselves on the ground and, early in the half, it was Rutgers doing the scoring. The Scarlet Knights were up 2-0 and 4-1 before Samaras could bring the Tigers back. In fact, for much of the first half, it seemed that she was the only Tiger who could beat the Rutgers goalie, Kathy Stott (who finished the game with 34 saves), scoring the first goal on a catch-and-shoot, assisting the second with a picturesque crossing pass to Courtney Booth and scoring the third unassisted with a powerful shot through a massed Rutgers defense. The assist gave Samaras the Princeton career points record with 221.

In the final minutes of the half, the Tigers offense began to show more diversity with Shaner and Burke combining for three goals, and Princeton went into the break fortunate to be tied at six. "Our offense in the first was stagnant and tentative," Sailer said. "We were standing around and watching."

As the second half began, it was again Samaras and her wounded knee bearing the Tigers' weight. She scored one goal on a pass from Burke and a second, for which she out-fought much of the Rutgers team, that put the Tigers up to stay. The game remained close until Princeton poured in four goals during the final 10 minutes to end it as something of a runaway.

Although the score may suggest an easy win, this was anything but, and had Samaras's knee kept her from playing the result might have been decidedly different. For her part, Samaras claimed not to be at all nervous at being asked to pull so much of the team's weight so soon after her surgery. "It's just natural to me to carry the team," she said. "If I'm not on the field, I'll carry the team from the sideline." Certainly, Samaras's energy does lift the Tigers, but she also provides a vision of the field, a creativity, and a knack for scoring that cannot be supplied from the sideline. Despite the considerable talent of some of the younger players, it seems likely that whatever heights the Tigers hope to reach this year they must reach on the back -- or, really, the powerful-but-tender left knee -- of Christi Samaras.

-- Ben Cavell


Men's hockey advances to ECAC playoffs in Lake Placid

Saturday night: At the end of the second period, the biggest game that sleepy Baker Rink has seen in decades is not going well for the Tigers. Having fought all season for the home-ice advantage they now enjoy in the first round of the ECAC playoffs, the men's ice hockey team is down 4-2 to a pesky Cornell team -- and the score would be even worse if Ethan Doyle '01 hadn't scored a shorthanded goal off an incredible assist by Scott Bertoli '99. A 4-4 tie on Friday night has turned the best of three series into a one-game showdown -- if either team wins, it will advance to the ECAC Championships at Lake Placid. (If the teams tie again, they'll play a final game on Sunday.) And the Tigers, who have ambitions that go beyond a quarterfinal series with Cornell, know they need to make some noise in the ECAC tournament if they are to receive a bid to the NCAA tournament. "I think we're a bubble team right now," says coach Don Cahoon. "We need to win this weekend and win one at Lake Placid to get a bid."

Cornell's strategy this weekend has been to bait the Tigers into taking penalties. As Cahoon says of his counterpart on the Cornell bench, "He thinks it would be to his advantage if he can turn it into a penalty-filled affair. They stay in games based on their special teams." The tie on Friday was a good example -- Princeton went up 4-1, but Cornell got two power play goals en route to evening the score. It was, as the Princeton players and coaches admitted after the game, a bad tie, and it has put the Tigers in a must-win situation. And now, as the Tigers sit in their locker room before the third period, they are down two goals.

Yet the mood in the room is surprisingly upbeat. "You'd think there would be doubt," captain Syl Apps '99 says, "but there really wasn't. We just knew we had to stay away from penalties." After all, Cornell has scored three of its four goals on the power play. Cahoon tells his players that they can win if they play hard and stay disciplined. "I just told them that they needed to have one great period," he says.

The third period opens with the Tigers serving the last minute of a penalty. On an innocent-looking faceoff in the Cornell zone, Apps draws the puck back to Benoit Morin '00, who fires a quick one-timer that somehow finds the net -- the Tigers' second shorthanded goal of the game. A minute and 12 seconds later, Apps scores, and the score is tied. For the next six minutes the two teams play the kind of tight, hard-hitting, playoff hockey that Baker Rink hasn't seen in a long time. With 11:11 left in the game, Cornell's fourth line works the puck around the Princeton zone until its right wing takes a tough shot from a sharp angle that beats goalie Dave Stathos '02 to his stick side. Cornell by one.

The Big Red immediately goes into a defensive mode, dumping the puck out of its zone at every possible opportunity. The minutes quickly slip off the clock until, with 4:04 left, Brad Meredith '99 sees an opening and takes a 20-foot slapshot. "Meredith shoots like I do," Cahoon says. But the puck finds the back of the net, and Jeff Halpern '99 tackles Meredith. Normally the crowd at Baker is so staid that Princeton goals are accompanied by a blaring from the PA system meant to simulate a proper celebration, but for the first time in recent memory the crowd outcheers the white noise from the rink's speakers. Then, 23 seconds later, Mike Acosta '99 takes his own slapper. "I knew it was in when I hit it," he says. "I don't score very much, so I know when it's going in." Sure enough, the shot beats the Cornell goalie low to his stick side, and Princeton leads for the first time.

Over the next four minutes, Cornell makes a series of desperate rushes but the Princeton defense holds. As time runs out, the team converges on center ice. The small student section (the game was played during the first weekend of spring break) chants, "Thank you, seniors," and the players finally get to celebrate a playoff win before a home crowd. "I didn't want to get off the ice," Halpern says after the game. "It was an indescribable feeling -- I was just jumping up and down like a little kid."

Although the win gives the team the school record for wins in a season (19), after the game the players make it clear that they still have unfinished business. "We didn't want it to end here," Apps says. "We still have hockey to play." Cahoon, for his part, looks drained. "I know neither coach is better for this experience," he says. "That was like Frazier and Ali in Manila." Princeton is again only three games away from the ECAC title, although the team must play an extra qualifying round in Lake Placid and win three games in three days. Last year, the Tigers proved such a feat was possible when they became the first seventh seed in league history to win the tournament. But after that magical run and this series, Cahoon must privately wonder how many thrilla's his team has left.

Women's hockey

In the quarterfinals of the ECAC tournament, the seventh-seeded women's hockey team met the University of New Hampshire, the team that had eliminated the Tigers from each of the last three tournaments. The women's teams in the ECAC play only one game in the quarterfinals, and the Tigers lost again to UNH, 5-1. Princeton goalie Susan Maes '02 stopped 39 shots, including 20 in the final period, and Jordan Rettig '01 scored the Tigers' lone goal with 2:56 remaining in the game.

With the loss, Ali Coughlin '99's career came to a close. During her four years on the team, Coughlin scored 89 goals and had 58 assists.

Men's swimming takes second at Easterns

This year the problem may not have been lack of depth. It may instead have been the disappointing performance of the usually reliable, but injury-laden, men's relay teams. Whatever the cause, Princeton again played bridesmaid to Harvard, as the Crimson claimed the Ivy League Championship and the Tigers were relegated to second place.

Harvard's biggest advantage lay in the middle and distance events, where the Crimson clearly outclassed the field -- taking, for example, the top five slots in the 500-yard freestyle. Princeton had hoped to make up some points in the relays, but the Tigers, who had been seeded first in four of the five relays, instead took either fourth or fifth in all five. Senior Matt Vogt, due to a back injury, was only able to swim in one event -- the 50-yard freestyle. Although he won that race with a time of 20.27 seconds, the Tigers sorely missed his presence at the anchor slot in the relays.

Captain J.P. Norvell '99 successfully defended his title in the 200-yard butterfly by swimming a 1:47.10 to break his own school record; Matt Harrigan '01 took second place in the 200-yard breaststroke in 2:02.53.


The women's team finished second to Brown at the Ivy League Championship meet. The Tigers led by one point after the first day, but slipped over the next two and ended up losing by 50 points (762-712). Diver Erin Lutz won the Ivy Championship in the three-meter dive with a pool-record 532.60 total score. She later placed third at the zone diving championships and will compete in the NCAA swimming and diving championships at the University of Georgia in late March.

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