PDS’ road to title goes through publics

Steady Pepperman helps Panthers top PHS boys’ basketball

By: Bob Nuse
   With each passing game, the Princeton Day School boys’ basketball team is looking more and more like a contender for a state Prep B championship.
   The Panthers cleared one hurdle in their continuing road of improvement on Wednesday when they posted their first win of the season over a Colonial Valley Conference team, topping Princeton, 46-32. With the win, PDS improved to 9-5 on the season. Princeton fell to 1-10 with its ninth straight loss.
   "They’re a very hard-working group," said Panther coach Ahmed El-Nokali, whose team had lost previous games to CVC foes Allentown and Hopewell Valley. "These kids want to get better and they’re always looking to get better. They’re just looking for direction. After practice they’ll come up to me and want a workout they can do. Sometimes I’ll stay around an extra 45 minutes while they work on things."
   The Panthers started the season with four straight wins, then lost four of five before a recent stretch that has seen them win four of five. Against Princeton, the Panthers held a 24-23 lead at halftime, then held the Little Tigers scoreless for the first 7:57 of the third quarter to make the lead 33-23.
   Offensively, it seems like there are times when we’ll struggle," El-Nokali said. "But defensively, we come to play for 32 minutes."
   The leaders of the defense were center Dave Pepperman, who blocked seven shots, and guard Dylan Leith, who shut down PHS newcomer Josh Thompson in the second half after the transfer had scored 12 points in the first half. Thompson, who played at PDS before moving and then returning to the area recently, finished with 16 points.
   "Dylan was the key to the game," said Pepperman, who finished with 11 points to go with his seven blocks and 10 rebounds. "He shut down (Thompson). We played with him freshman year so we knew how we played. It was big that Dylan shut him down in the second half."
   Leith’s offense also sparked the Panthers. He scored the first six points of the second half on a pair of three-point shots, while also playing tight defense on Thompson. Meanwhile, Pepperman was doing his usual steady job at both ends of the floor.
   "Every single night Dave brings that intensity and heart," said El-Nokali, whose team is back in action today at 5:45 p.m. at West Windsor-Plainsboro South. "He has been our most consistent player. His defense helps gives our guards the confidence to go out and guard people. But sometimes we’re putting too much pressure on Dave."
   "Last year I was up and down," Pepperman added. "I would score 20 points one game and zero in another. That was one thing I wanted coming into the season, to stay consistent."
   With the Panthers getting consistent play out of Pepperman, as well as the usual steady play from rest of the lineup, they now have their sights set on a state Prep B championship. Having played the schedule they have should only help with that mission.
   "That’s been the goal the last couple years, but this is the year to do it," Pepperman said. "We haven’t been able to get over the hump. We haven’t played the way we want to play. We were up for this game because it’s two teams from Princeton and also because we lost a tough game to them last year in triple overtime."
   With games against public schools WW-P South and WW-P North still ahead, El-Nokali feels his team will be ready come state tournament time.
   "It’s great in terms of showing the kids what’s out there," said El-Nokali, whose team was led by Drew Godwin with 16 points. "You can’t duplicate game pressure and we see a lot of different schemes. Against Rancocas Valley we couldn’t get the ball across half court. But that game showed us what we needed to compete.
   "I’ve always been a fan of playing a difficult pre-season schedule. It makes you tougher. I think that will be important when the Prep B tournament comes up because nothing will surprise us."