Pat Noone can’t help but smile when he talks about the way his Princeton High boys’ basketball team is playing right now.
Princeton is playing the kind of team basketball Noone has been preaching since he took over as the Little Tigers’ head coach three years ago. Right now it has clicked and Princeton has won six of its last eight games - the latest a 70-68 victory over Princeton Day School on Wednesday - to improve to 8-6 on the season.
"That’s the kind of culture we are trying to build here and these guys have bought in,” said Noone, whose team had beaten Nottingham, 66-51, on Tuesday. “They deserve all the credit. They were unbelievable.”
Princeton came out of the gate quickly against PDS and raced to a 22-7 lead after the first quarter and still lead 37-24 at halftime. But the Panthers opened the second half on a 16-2 run over the first three minutes to take a 40-39 lead.
“It was really exciting,” said Jack Suozzi, who scored four points and provided Princeton with a big lift off the bench. “Coach told us they were going to come out hard so we needed to come out with a lot more energy. We played hard. What we like about our team is we play hard and we play with a lot of energy. We play well as a team.”
Princeton never let the PDS lead grow to more than one and held off a late surge by the Panthers for the victory.
“It’s what we expected,” said Noone, whose team will host Hamilton on Friday night. “They are too talented. And you knew they were going to do it just like that. They go to the basket so well. They can shoot three’s. They have four guys that are outstanding. Freddie (Young Jr.) is unbelievable. David (Coit) is unbelievable. He’s going to be a 2,000 point scorer. We knew it. We were up 15 and I think we were a little bit happy. But I kind of took down the mood a little in the room when I said look we’re going to be down in the third quarter because that’s just how talented that team is.”
But Princeton responded to the challenge, getting a huge second half from Gefen Bar-Cohen, who finished with 19 points. Jay Jackson had another big game and finished with 15 points, while the balanced offense also saw Ben Rougas scored 12 points and Jaylen Johnson delivered 10 points.
“We have really gelled as a team and we are playing really well together,” Suozzi said. “On any night everyone is going to contribute to the offense. We just have to keep doing what we have been doing all season and keep grinding and playing hard with a lot of energy.”
Suozzi comes off the bench to give Princeton a spark on defense and he does all the little things well, which Noone appreciates.
“He’s a grinder,” the Princeton coach said. “He played really well today and he has played well all year. He’s a guy who maybe should be starting and I had a talk with him and told him I just like the way he comes off the bench. He’ll always say, ‘Coach, whatever we need for the team.’ You can’t ask for anything more than that. He gives us a spark.”
And Suozzi, a junior, is happy to help any way he can.
“My role is just to help my team out, on defense especially,” he said. “And I can help our point guard, Tim (Evidente), bring up the ball if its needed. If I hit a couple three’s I hit a couple three’s. But otherwise I am just going to try to keep the ball moving and keep the offense flowing.
“Every since I was playing club basketball I have really prided myself on my defense. It’s what wins games and that’s what we did today. Coach talks about keeping our fundamentals strong. (PDS) had a lot of talent. Number 3 (Young Jr.) was shooting and driving. We just needed to stick to our fundamentals.”
Noone couldn’t be happier with the way his team is playing right now. Bar-Cohen, another junior, made some big plays down the stretch, while Jackson and Johnson continued their strong play.
“(Bar-Cohen) hit some big free throws and had some big rebounds down the stretch,” Noone said. “It’s just a great group and they just work their tails off. Jay and Jaylen, their last four games have been unbelievable. They move the ball well and have been playing great. Everyone has bought into the team and that is a real cool thing.”
Princeton clinched a state tournament berth with its eighth win. Last year the Little Tigers finished 4-21.
“I think that snow day on Saturday kind of helped us out,” Noone said. “I think we needed a break. We got some time off and that helped. We had a huge win (Tuesday) against Nottingham, the defending state champs. And then this team tonight, they’re 10-4 and have been playing great all year, so this was a nice win. We are just playing together.”