Web Exclusives: The Varsity Typewriter
a PAW web exclusive column by Patrick Sullivan '02 (email: pas@princeton.edu)

March 13, 2002:
Ed Persia ’04 shines in his final season game

A squeaker in Kentucky gives Princeton 66-65 loss

By Patrick Sullivan '02

Ed Persia has an affinity for making the SportsCenter highlights.

In Princeton’s nail-biting 65-66 loss to Louisville in the opening round of the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) last night, the scrappy sophomore guard from Beaumont, Texas, drilled three consecutive treys with three minutes and change remaining in the second half, pulling the Tigers to within two points at 55-57. Then, with just 19 seconds remaining, Persia converted on freshman center Dominick Martin’s backdoor pass, giving Princeton a one-point advantage.

The 1 a.m. SportsCenter recorded all Persia’s heroics in its recap of the game. Speaking as a Tigers fan and a basketball fan: boy was that highlight real sweet!

Unfortunately, the story continues. With 5.3 seconds remaining, Louisville guard Reece Gaines streaked the length of the court and somehow engineered an impressive double-clutch lay-up, stealing an upset victory from the Tigers, and in the process, stealing the thunder from Persia’s perfect performance.

Persia’s 11 points — on 4-4 shooting — came in the last 10 minutes of the game, which ironically, were the only 10 minutes that he played.
This also story continues, however.

Persia appeared on SportsCenter last season, featured during a recap of Princeton’s first-round loss to North Carolina in the NCAA tournament. Though the Tigers received a sound Tar Heel thumping, the then-freshman guard played beautifully, scoring a Princeton-leading 16 points on 6-11 shooting. Like his performance against Louisville, Persia drained three consecutive three-pointers in the second period of that game, forcing the Tar Heels to call time-out. And like this year, SportsCenter got it on tape.

Give the diminutive point guard credit: He’s a "money player, bay-bee," as Dick Vitale would say. He loves the pressure of the limelight, and his game responds favorably. But "diminutive," you say? That’s right, in my opinion Persia epitomizes the David-beat-Goliath attitude that characterizes Princeton postseason play for as long as I can remember. Whether in the Big Dance or merely in the NIT, few people count on the Tigers to win. "They’re just too small, too slow, too…white to be effective," people say.

Not true.

Persia might only tip the scales at a mere 180 pounds, but within this six-foot, one-inch ball player is a scrappiness that many far more gifted college athletes lack. I don’t focus on Ed for any specific reason, mind you. He only serves as an example of the heart of this particular basketball game.

Consider the events of the past week. Princeton entered the Palestra in Philadelphia last Tuesday with a half-game lead for the Ivy League championship. Forty minutes and one solid defeat later, Penn forced a three-way tie for first place spoils. Two days later, Princeton would return to the hostile Palestra, this time facing Yale in a must-win playoff game. Instead, the Bulldogs dealt Persia and company a stunning 16-point blowout loss, ending Princeton’s hopes of facing Penn again, this time for outright claim to the Ivy League’s one NCAA tournament bid.

Despite effectively giving away its claim to league spoils, the Tigers regrouped and spent the weekend practicing, all the while awaiting an NIT bid. When the dust settled on "Selection Sunday," Princeton drew Louisville. At Louisville.

Did I mention that Rick Pitino, a longtime University of Kentucky and former Boston Celtics coach, runs the show for the Cardinals? Or that Louisville averages 76.8 points per contest — and put up 110 during one game this season? (By comparison, the Tigers average a paltry 59.8 points per game.) Did you know that Louisville, a middling team in the powerhouse Conference USA, handed the University of Cincinnati, a number one seeded team in the NCAA tournament, one of its three losses for the season? Given these unbalanced numbers, it should come as no surprise that the Cardinals’ leading scorer averages 21.1 points each night. That, sports fans, more than doubles the average — 9.7 — of senior Mike Bechtold, Princeton’s leading offensive weapon.

On paper, all this spells blowout. However, since Coach John Thompson III continuously works to instill confidence in his youthful team, the Tigers may have been outmatched against Pitino’s Cards, but they played as only a Princeton team could: with a heart far superior to their size, speed or skill.
Chew on these numbers. Princeton shot 12-25 from beyond the arc (.480), 23-45 overall (.511), and 7-10 from the charity stripe (.700). Louisville, by contrast, shot 7-19 from three-point range (.368), 19-44 from the field (.431) and 21-30 from the line (also .700). Additionally, Bechtold’s 24 points proved to be the game’s highest tally; he even outscored Gaines, the Cardinal sharpshooter. Free throws proved to be the only advantage that tipped the scales in favor of Louisville; Princeton attempted 20 less shots from the line, and was plagued by fouls in the second half.

Rather than being "blown from the water," as I pessimistically predicted to my roommates before the game, Princeton played with finesse and poise, even in front of the Cardinal-crazy home crowd of 11,128 at Freedom Hall. A shorter, slower, less talented (though albeit much smarter) basketball team almost silenced Freedom Hall in the characteristically "David-beats-Goliath" style of true Tiger hoops.

And they would have, had the game ended 5.3 seconds sooner.

PS: Congratulations on four great years to seniors Mike Bechtold, Ahmed El-Nokali, and Conor Neu

You can reach Patrick at pas@princeton.edu.