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Sports: Princeton vs. Penn, March 5, 2002

Not over yet
Penn routs Princeton; first three-way tie for title in Ivy League history

If there was any question who is the leader of the 2001-02 version of the Princeton Tigers were answered on Penn’s campus last night.

For moments of the history-making game, it looked as though Ahmed El Nokali ’02 was going to will the Tigers to victory against a much more talented and athletic Penn team, which had beaten Princeton soundly earlier this year.

Playing in his final regular season game for the Tigers, the senior guard’s 19 points, crisp passing and tenacious defense kept Princeton close. But it was history’s night — not a surprise at the Palestra — and the Quakers won 64-48, leading to the first three-way tie for the Ivy League title in the conference’s history.

The Tigers will now play Yale on Thursday in the Palestra for the right to take on Penn on Saturday at Lafayette College in a battle for March’s most desired commodity: an NCAA tournament bid.

For those who have grumbled about the need for a season-ending league tournament to decide the champion in the Ancient Eight, well: "We’ve got on now, don’t we?" said Tiger head coach John Thompson ’88.

Thompson now turns to preparing his squad for a Yale game to be played at the Palestra. The choice of the neutral site may seem a bit peculiar for Princeton fans, but nothing is simple in the Ivy League this year.

Simple would have been Princeton (16-10, 11-3 Ivy) beating Penn (24-6, 11-3) on the last night of the season and sitting around on Sunday to see where the NCAA gods were sending them. Penn did it to Princeton in 1999 and 2000, and the Tigers returned the favor last year.

But Penn had the touch this time, hitting 52% from the field for the game, including a scorching 65% as they pulled away in the second half. The main factors were the same trio that burned the Tigers at Jadwin a few weeks ago as Andrew Toole led the Quakers with 19 points, followed by Ugonna Onyekwe with 16, and Koko Archibong with 11.

"They’re a very good team. "You don’t get 24 wins and not be a good unit," said a disheartened Thompson after the game.
Aside from El-Nokali’s inspired performance, which included steals, several drives, and deep jumpers just when Princeton seemed to need it to stay close, the Tigers did not have a good night, connecting on only 37% of their shots. Will Venable ’05 scored 10 points to continue the offensive progress he’s shown at the end of the season.

But senior Mike Bechtold, coming off a career-high 25 against Columbia on Saturday -— including a game-winning three-pointer - — went scoreless in 30 minutes.

Thompson said he was surprised by Bechtold’s performance. "We were getting shots, they just didn’t fall, and at the end of the day you have to hit your shots when you’re open," he said.

With Yale on the horizon, the Tigers are once again playing in their biggest game of the season, which has been a pattern this year. El Nokali predicts a rough game, but no surprises from Yale (19-9, 11-3). He also did not want to dwell on the Tigers’ share of the Ivy title.

"One more game and that’s it. There’s nothing else," said El Nokali. "All I’m thinking about is going to the tournament. Winning the Ivy League is just the only way to get there."

By Argelio Dumenigo.

You can reach Argelio at dumenigo@princeton.edu