Thursday, January 2, 2014

Haka, Hielscher And A Nice New Year's Eve Win

For entertainment purposes, the best part of the Princeton-Kent State men's basketball game might have occurred about 30 minutes prior to tip-off outside of the ticket office in the corridor between Jadwin's main lobby and the side exit.

It was there that the Golden Flashes gathered for a pregame chant/dance that reminded TB of a New Zealand rugby Haka.

Anyone who was entering the gym could hear and see the Kent State players as they went through their pregame ritual, which TB later learned is a long-standing tradition. It was great theater, and, as TB said to one of the Kent State players shortly before tip-off, it was almost enough to get him to root for the visitors.

Almost. Not quite.

The game itself was hardly aesthetic, as neither team shot better than 40% and with more made foul shots (43) than field goals (40) between the two.

Also, TB can't remember a half that ever took longer or seemed unable to develop any flow like the second half of the game. And the final 1:10? It took 14 minutes to play.

Add it all up though, and it was a very beautiful way for the 2013 calendar year to end for the Tigers, with a 73-68 win that left the team at 10-2. Kent State, for its part, is 9-4 and one of the better teams in the MAC, which is a very strong league.

It was a very, very good win for Princeton, and it showed that the Tigers can win games against good teams without lighting it up from three-point range. Against Kent State, Princeton was 8 for 32 from beyond the arc.

New Year's Eve afternoon is a great time for a game, and the crowd was filled with families with little kids. Many of those families were local; at least one was here from Illinois.

Shortly before tip, TB turned around to see a very familiar face on a 6' 9" body, and he knew immediately that it was Rick Hielscher, perhaps the most underrated two-time first-team All-Ivy League player Princeton has ever had.

Hielscher ranks 15th all-time in scoring at Princeton with 1,130 points, despite knees - and circumstances - that limited his playing time. He is Princeton's career leader with 159 blocked shots, though in fairness Chris Young would have obliterated that record had he played more than two seasons. Add in more than 400 rebounds and 200 assists, and it's a pretty well-rounded basketball resume.

Hielscher was the 1991-92 Ivy League Rookie of the Year and a first-team All-Ivy selection as a junior and senior. He helped Princeton to the 1992 Ivy League championship and NCAA tournament, as the Class of 1992 become the only men's class in Ivy history to play four varsity seasons and go to four NCAA tournaments.

As an aside, the Princeton women's class of 2013 is the only women's class to match that accomplishment.

Of course, Hielscher had some issues to deal with, not the least of which was that he and Pete Carril didn't exactly always see eye-to-eye. And Hielscher was the center who followed Kit Mueller.

And, perhaps worst of all, he was the only member of his class who saw considerable playing time, while Penn's Class of 1995 featured, among others, Jerome Allen and Matt Maloney.

As a senior, Hielscher came off the bench, behind freshman Steve Goodrich. The year after Hielscher's graduation was the Carril's last, the year that Princeton defeated UCLA in the NCAA tournament and began a run of three straight championships.

Still, there's no denying that Hielscher was a great player at Princeton, something Carril admitted at media day before the 1995-95 season. And there he was at Jadwin for the game Tuesday, with his wife, daughter and two sons.

TB spoke to Hielscher again after the game started, and the big guy mentioned how impressed he was with the Tigers.

Princeton is at Liberty Saturday and then at Penn in the Ivy opener the following Saturday before the long first-semester exam break.

With no league games yet to be played, there are currently five Ivy teams above .500 and one a game below. It's been a pretty good non-league run by the league, and even some of the losses have been impressive - close setbacks on the home courts of power conference teams.

Clearly the team that has generated the most attention is Harvard, with its 12-1 record after its win over Boston College yesterday. And that's just fine with Princeton, who is 10-2 and playing very, very well.

Of course, nothing will be easy in the league. Dartmouth is 7-4 and Columbia is 8-6, and both have looked good too. Brown is 6-5; Yale is 5-6.

The month of January isn't a huge one for Princeton in terms of number of games, with just four of them, including Division III Kean after exams.

But the one at Penn is huge to start the Ivy season, and there is the Jan. 31 date at Harvard.

For now, Princeton can be a happy 10-2.

Win No. 10 might not have been an aesthetic 10, but it still looks really pretty on the results page.

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