The Quakers are coming! The Quakers are coming! (And the Tigers are, too.)
There is rarely cause to fear the arrival of a Friend unless you are talking about the University of Pennsylvania’s men’s basketball team. Tigers, on the other hand, are always dangerous, and the Princeton variety is no exception. This weekend, the Bulldogs (7-12, 3-3 Ivy) will have to face off the perennial powerhouses of the Ivy League, hosting Princeton (11-10, 2-5) Friday and Penn (14-7, 7-0) Saturday at John J. Lee Amphitheater.
The Quakers, who have a seemingly impenetrable hold on first place in the Ancient Eight, boast a comfortable 2.5-game lead over second-ranked Cornell and are poised to take their third title in four years and ninth in the last 13 years. But after the Elis’ impressive sweep last weekend of Dartmouth and Harvard, there is reason to believe the Bulldogs can delay Penn’s crowning.
“I know we can beat anyone if we play well,” captain Alex Gamboa ’05 said. “We have the talent, we have the players — we’re a good enough team.”
The defending Ivy League champion Tigers have not lived up to expectations this season, going 2-5 in the first half of conference play. Princeton beat the Elis three weeks ago in Princeton, N.J., 58-43. In that game, the Bulldogs held a two-point edge at halftime, but they were outscored 34-17 after the half. The night before, Elis suffered a 24-point defeat to Penn in their Ivy opener in Philadelphia.
The Elis did anything but play well in their first match-ups against Penn and Princeton. At Penn, the Quakers jumped out to a 16-4 lead in the opening minutes and the Bulldogs never got within 10 points before falling 65-41. Penn forward Steve Danley led all players with 16 points, followed by guard Tim Begley with 15 points. Eli guard Edwin Draughan ’05 was the only Yale player to hit double figures in points with 10.
The Elis shot a season-low 28.8 percent from the field, including 0-for-8 from beyond the arc in the second half. The Bulldogs were outscored 36-20 in the paint despite the inside defensive work of forward Casey Hughes ’07, who pulled down nine boards, including six offensive rebounds. Hughes sat out both games last weekend with a sore shoulder, but head coach James Jones said he anticipates Hughes’ presence on the court this weekend.
“He’s probably 80, 90 percent right now,” Jones said. “There’s still some discomfort, but he practiced the last couple days. I expect him to play.”
Jones said the Eli squad that will take the court this weekend is a better team than the one that faced Penn at the Palestra.
“We obviously have to score more than we did at the Palestra,” Jones said. “We laid an egg down there. They got far too many points in the paint the last time we played them. But I think we’re better now, we just have to go out and prove it.”
The Quaker offense is led by Begley, who is averaging 14.2 points per game, the fourth most in the league. Begley is also ranked first in assists per game (4.57) and ninth in rebounding (5.3).
One night after the loss at Penn, the Elis played Princeton on the Tigers’ home court, where they had not won in the previous 11 trips. That streak now stands at 12. Early on the Bulldogs had hope, leading 26-24 at the half while shooting over 50 percent from the field (12-for-23). But the Tigers took control in the second half with their slow-down style of play, designed to control the tempo of the game. The Elis made only four field goals in the entire second period, shooting an abysmal 25 percent after halftime.
Gamboa said the Elis handed that game to Princeton.
“We should have won, there’s no question,” Gamboa said. “We should have been up more than we were at the half. There is a sense of disappointment in the way the game got away. I think we can carry it into some positive energy in terms of wanting to get back at these guys on Friday night.”
The Elis will have to do a better job of containing the Tigers’ big men. In the loss earlier this season, Princeton’s forward Mike Stephens scored a career-high 23 points. Princeton center Judson Wallace now leads the Tiger offense, averaging 13.6 points per game.
Gamboa said the Bulldogs’s defense has greatly improved since their last meetings with Penn and Princeton.
“We’re playing with a little bit more confidence,” Gamboa said. “The main thing is definitely better defense. That weekend at Penn and Princeton, we weren’t focused or intense enough on defense. I think we’ve had a couple of great defense games [since then], with the exception [of the loss to] Cornell. We’ve really come together defensively as a team. I think we’ll get more stops this weekend.”
Since the loss to the Tigers, Yale and Princeton have taken very divergent paths through Ivy League competition. After beating Yale, the Tigers lost four straight league games and collected just their second win last weekend against Columbia.
The Elis, 0-2 in conference play after that opening weekend, have won three of their last four, including a one-point victory over Harvard last weekend at home, 54-53. The lone loss in that stretch came in double overtime against Cornell, 87-82.
Instrumental to the Elis’ transformation has been the resurgence of center Dominick Martin ’06 and the emergence of the Eli freshman players. After averaging over 15 points per game in the non-conference portion of the season, Martin was averaging less than five points per game through the first four league contests. But last weekend he came around, scoring 11 points against Dartmouth and 12 points against Harvard while containing the big men on both teams defensively.
Twin brother forwards Caleb and Nick Holmes ’08 and guard Eric Flato ’08 have led the Eli freshmen to considerable contributions off the bench of late. The Holmes brothers have found the three-point touch in the last few games, and Caleb was named Ivy League Rookie of the Week two weeks ago for his 15-point performance against Columbia in the Elis’ 77-67 victory.
Flato claimed Rookie of the Week honors this week, making it two straight for the Eli freshman. Flato was 5-for-10 from the field and scored 13 points against Harvard.
For the Eli freshmen, this weekend is clearly their biggest test yet, with the most at stake. But the Elis are feeling good about their game.
“We definitely think we’re a lot better team now than we were,” Nick Holmes said. “We think we’re going to beat [Penn]. They’re obviously good, but we think they’re beatable. We just didn’t play well at all the first time.”
The veteran Gamboa said he knows the challenge the Elis face in the Quakers.
“We’re playing the first place team in the league that has yet to lose, or even come close to losing,” Gamboa said. “We’re going to have to bring it.”