Friday, January 21, 2011

Back In Black - And Orange

TigerBlog began his career at Princeton as the contact for the football, men's basketball and men's lacrosse team, a cycle he repeated for eight years.

He also was the contact for men's and women's water polo when it first became a varsity sport in the mid-1990s. He was the rowing contact in the late 1990s, and he covered women's soccer, men's and women's squash and wrestling at one point.

All told, the teams that TB was the contact for have combined to win somewhere around 25 Ivy League championships, and he has written about national championships in four of his sports.

Each season of each sport has been unique, and it hasn't only been championships that has defined the best of these teams. Bill Tierney used to say that the best part of coaching was that each new season provided its own challenge.

Of course, one of the strong lures of working at Princeton is that so many of these teams are successful on the field, which makes it more fun to chronicle.

Still, certain teams will always be more special than others, based on what they accomplished and how they did so.

The 1992 men's lacrosse team, for instance, which won the program's first of six NCAA championships. Or the 1997 team, which was the only one to have a perfect season. Or 2001, which was the most emotional of the six titles.

There was the 2004 women's soccer season, which saw Princeton become the first Ivy League team reach the Final Four in a 64-team NCAA tournament.

When it comes to men's basketball, there have been more than a few that really stand out, but if TB had to pick the most special of all of them, it would be the 1997-98 season.

Second and third, by the way, would be 1995-96 (Carril's last year, the playoff win over Penn, the NCAA win over UCLA) and 2000-01 (John Thompson's first year, an unexpected Ivy title).

But 1997-98 was beyond the normal scale of what an Ivy League athletic communications person could expect to be part of.

TB was looking through some of the clips from that season yesterday, and here is a partial list of media outlets that came to Princeton to write about a team that ultimately reached No. 7 in the national polls:

* the Washington Post
* the San Antonio Express-News
* the Los Angeles Times
* the Boston Globe
* Newsweek
* the Chicago Tribune
* the Houston Chronicle
* the Miami Herald
* the New York Times Magazine
* Sports Illustrated

Every day, it seemed, the phone would ring and another reporter would ask to fly across the country to talk to head coach Bill Carmody and the rest of the Tigers.

When TB thinks back to that season, he remembers the media, he remembers the regular-season finale against Penn (an overtime win), he remembers the only regular-season loss (at North Carolina), he remembers the three wins against Texas, N.C. State and Wake Forest at the Meadowlands, he remembers a whole lot of Ivy League routs.

He remembers how Mike Lupica asked Carmody in the postgame press conference after the opening round NCAA tournament win over UNLV: "What did you say during the timeout? Go score five straight backdoor layups?"

Unfortunately, he also remembers how crushing it was when it ended, with a second-round loss to a Michigan State team that would start four of the same players two years later, when it won the NCAA championship.

TB also remembers the return-from-exams game, which matched the local Division III team from the College of New Jersey against the mighty Tigers. Surely this game would be the blowout of blowouts, right?

In looking through the clips, TB stumbled across Harvey Yavener's game story from the win over Niagara in the ECAC Holiday Festival championship game in Madison Square Garden. It went like this:
"Start spreading the news. Princeton's basketball team is going to go 26-and-1... All that's left are 14 games in an anemic Ivy League, a home date with a Manhattan team that lost by 27 at Mount St. Mary's last night and the return-from-exam date with the College of New Jersey. Maybe TCNJ will be the tough one."

As it turned out, Yav's words were 100% on.

Princeton destroyed Manhattan in that home game and cruised to 14-0 in the league, with only the overtime win at the Palestra on the final night even remotely close.

And the TCNJ game? Princeton 59, TCNJ 50, on Jan. 26, 1998. Princeton led 33-24 at the half, and the second half was even at 26-26.

TCNJ came into the game ranked fifth in Division III, with a record of 14-1. Princeton, with the win, improved to 14-1. Current assistant coach Brian Earl played all 40 minutes and led Princeton with 19 points, including 4 of 9 three-point shooting.

The attendance for that game was 4,320.

Three years later, TCNJ was back. This time, Princeton won 69-59, behind a 26-point, 10-rebounds, three-assist performance from Nate Walton. Attendance was 4,032.

TCNJ will be back in Jadwin Gym Sunday afternoon at 2, again in the return from exams game. Princeton will be 11-4 heading into the game, which will be the first in 18 days for the Tigers.

The Lions will be either 3-13 or 4-12, depending on whether or not they beat Montclair State Saturday.

Still, it should be a pretty good crowd, as TCNJ figures to bring some fans over from the campus in Ewing, which is six miles away from Princeton's. And of course, the Ivy League season starts for the men and women next weekend.

If nothing else, it's an athletic event involving Princeton after the seemingly endless exam break.

In addition to basketball, there's also men's and women's track and field at Jadwin tomorrow, and men's and women's swimming and diving against Dartmouth at DeNunzio Sunday.

Men's hockey gets back at it Tuesday, hosting Sacred Heart. By next weekend, men's volleyball and men's and women's tennis will have started their seasons, squash will be resuming and heading to its crucial matches, women's hockey and basketball and wrestling will get back in action and, within a few days, spring sports will start practicing.

After that, the next break for Princeton athletics won't come until June.

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