Tuesday, February 17, 2009

219 ... And Counting

TigerBlog was finishing up a pregame radio interview with Pete Carril prior to the start of a Princeton-Penn basketball game at the Palestra in the early ’90s. We were standing on one of the ramps that go from the concourse to the floor, underneath the stands.

"This is where we met," TigerBlog said to Carril. "Don't you remember? You were coaching, and I was chanting 'sit down Pete' with the rest of the Penn fans."

Carril gave one of those clenched grins with a rhetorical "right" as a response. Then it was off to work for him for one of the 61 games he would coach against the Quakers. Fittingly, it was more than he would coach against any other team.

Princeton and Penn meet tonight at Jadwin Gym (7 pm, ESPNU, WPRB FM 103.3) in the 219th meeting in a wonderful rivalry. The first meeting was on Valentine's Day in 1903, and the teams have met at least twice a year every year since.

TigerBlog, back in his days as QuakerStudent, jumped on the bandwagon back in the early ’80s. Tonight's game will be the 38th straight and 55th overall for TigerBlog in the rivalry, which has been experienced as a student at Penn, a "neutral" journalist and an administrator at Princeton.

The Penn-Princeton games rank among TigerBlog's very favorite days of the annual athletic calendar, up there with Princeton-Syracuse lacrosse, Giants-Cowboys and the days that the Yankees and Duke basketball are eliminated.

Our friends from ESPNU asked for a little research on the greatest moments in the rivalry, and it wasn't until then that it became obvious that the last 30 years or so are the glory days for these two. Yes, the teams have dominated the Ivy League from the beginning, as one or the other has represented the Ivy League in the NCAA tournament every year since 1963 except for four (1968, 1986, 1988, 2008).

Still, the greatest games have been recent ones. Maybe it's because TigerBlog has seen them first hand, but consider these moments:

* Princeton 50, Penn 49 (1999) - Princeton trailed 29-3 after a 29-0 Penn run, 33-9 at halftime and 40-13 at the first media timeout of the second half before rallying for the win behind Brian Earl, Mason Rocca, Gabe Lewullis, Chris Young and Ahmed El-Nokali.

* Princeton 68, Penn 52 (2001) - John Thompson's first team, a huge underdog when the season began, completed a fairy tale run by racing past the Quakers in the second half. Nate Walton's line: nine points, eight rebounds, seven assists, six steals.

* Princeton 78, Penn 72 in overtime (1998) - Princeton had already clinched the Ivy title, but Penn put up a spirited fight on its home court. When it was over, Steve Goodrich had scored 30 points on 11 of 13 shooting (after missing his first two shots) and Princeton was 26-1, the best record in Division I.

* Princeton 63, Penn 56 in overtime (1996) - Perhaps the greatest single moment (from the Tigers' perspective) in the history of the rivalry as Princeton won in overtime in the Ivy League playoff game at Lehigh. Princeton had lost eight straight to the Quakers, including a 14-point loss four nights earlier at the Palestra, but the Tigers gutted this one out after blowing a big lead and having Penn force OT on Ira Bowman's three-pointer with 10 seconds left. Sydney Johnson hit a huge three-pointer in the final minute of overtime and then added a steal and a pair of free throws. And just as the media was getting ready to write about the game, Pete Carril announced he was retiring.

That list doesn't even include great Penn moments, of which there have been just as many. For Penn fans, the night in 1990 that Hassan Duncombe tipped in a missed foul shot at the buzzer will always be special; for TigerBlog, it was the last game in the series that wasn't seen in person. TigerBlog was covering Trenton State-Glassboro State (which now would be TCNJ-Rowan) a few miles across the river in South Jersey, or at least covering as much of the game as could be seen from the sports information office, where the Princeton-Penn game was on the radio.

So forget that neither team is in first place right now. It's still an epic event anytime these two get together.

And before they do so yet again, one more little story:

After that loss to Penn in 1996 to force a tie for the championship and the one-game playoff, Carril came into the tiny interview room on the Palestra's east side.

“Do you think they have your number,” he was asked.

“I don’t believe in that,” he replied.

“Yeah, but sometimes a team just has your number,” the interviewer repeated.

“I don’t believe in that stuff,” the coach repeated.

Again, the question was asked. A third time the coach shrugged it off.

Frustrated, the interviewer gave up.

Then a different question came from a different reporter.

“What can you do differently in the playoff game to win?” the coach was asked.

Now the coach paused. A grin came across his face.

“Nothing,” said Pete Carril, “if they have our number.”

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