Thursday, March 18, 1999

XU playing with heart, playing to win




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[fans painted blue]
These Xavier students promised to give Princeton the blues. “They've never seen anything like us,” said Eric Newcomer, who supplied the 'O' in P-O-S-E-Y.
(Steve Sheffer photo)

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        Because the opponent was Princeton, the hecklers brought their A material. When you do battle with the Ivy League, even in the National Invitation Tournament, second-rate invective simply will not suffice.

        There were at least two signs in Latin. There was another featuring geometric symbols. The Xavier sophomores who paint their chests and crowd the baseline sought to strike the visitors where they live — the library, presumably.

        “We're breaking out "nerd,' we're breaking out "geek,' we've got "bookworm,'” said Eric Newcomer, whose painted torso supplied the "O' in (James) POSEY. “They've never seen anything like us.”

        “We're true fans,” said Michael Walton, his chest bearing a green “E”. “We paint up for the NIT.”

All this for a sock hop?
        Considering the comparatively modest stakes, it was surprising to see so much energy being expended. The NIT, after all, is college basketball's consolation prize, a competition often derided as the battle to boast, “We're No.65.”

        Yet for all its anticlimactic aspects, the NIT has come to mean something to the Musketeers this month. Disappointed by their exclusion from the NCAA Tournament, the Muskies gradually have warmed to the idea of using the NIT to vent and to seek validation. Wednesday, they responded to a 65-58 comeback victory over Princeton as if it were The Big Dance instead of college basketball's Sock Hop.

        “Selection Sunday, and practicing for Toledo, guys had their heads down,” Posey acknowledged. “We're in the NIT, and there's nothing like the NCAA. But after we got the first win under our belts, and (then beat) Wake Forest, we started to believe we could win it all.”

        Their faith surely grew stronger Wednesday night. Trailing by as many as 16 points and continually embarrassed by Princeton's ruthless back-door efficiency, the Muskies pressed and persevered and ultimately prevailed. When it was over, the students stormed the floor, and senior Gary Lumpkin made formal bows toward the stands. The sound system was cued to Frank Sinatra: “New York, New York.”

        The NIT is irrelevant, all right. Unless, of course, you start winning.

        “It is,” XU coach Skip Prosser said, “the only game we've got.”

Party almost canceled
        For a while, it appeared the Muskies were willing to put their uneven season out of its misery. They had difficulty dealing with Princeton's half-court discipline, allowing so many layups that the home crowd began to boo. Compounding the problem was that the Muskies were making so few of their shots that they were unable to set up their press and create turnovers.

        For those who could watch the game without a rooting interest, Princeton was a spellbinding sight. Pete Carril, the Princeton coach who preceded Bill Carmody, made high art of the half-court offense, and his disciple has studied his source material with care. So much of basketball these days is about speed in transition and skill in one-on-one matchups. Princeton is about making the extra pass that leads to the layup.

        It pretty much has to be. Without athletic scholarships or pliable admissions offices, the Ivy League competes in college basketball by virtue of its most abundant natural resource: intelligence.

        But as one eloquent spectator observed, “You ain't playing the SAT's tonight.” Once the Muskies were able to make full use of their athleticism, Princeton's finely crafted game began to crumble. Made baskets meant full-court pressure and hurried the Tigers into mistakes. After committing only four turnovers in the first half, Princeton made 10 in the second period.

        “Coach told us we had 20 minutes to live,” Posey said. “That it was do-or-die. And we didn't want to die yet.”

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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