PDS shows character in Prep B loss

Panthers fall to Newark Academy

By: Bob Nuse
   SOUTH BRUNSWICK — Ahmed El-Nokali enjoyed some great moments on the basketball court as a player for the Princeton University men’s basketball team. But in just a few short months, the former Tiger has come to find just how rewarding it can be from the coaching side of the game.
   "This has been one of the best experiences I’ve had in the game," said El-Nokali, who completed his first season as the boys’ basketball coach at Princeton Day School by leading the Panthers to the state Prep B final, where they dropped a 55-49 decision to Newark Academy on Sunday. "It’s very fulfilling as a coach to see the way your players develop.
   "You see the way they start to believe in themselves and what they’re doing. All season long these guys just kept getting better and better. They honestly believed they were going to win this game today. That’s why they’re so down right now. There are no moral victories."
   The Panthers, who were seeded seventh in the tournament, came into Sunday’s final riding a six-game winning streak that included wins over the second and third seeds. And even after falling behind, 11-1, at the start, they never lost their composure and were able to cut the lead to three midway through the second quarter.
   PDS then started slowly in the third quarter as Newark Academy built a 34-19 lead. But even at that point, the Panthers never quit. Riding the strong shooting of senior Dylan Leith, the Panthers cut the lead to 37-35 by the end of the third quarter. But in the end, PDS could never get even and Newark Academy held on for the win.
   "I thought the team showed tremendous character, not just in this game but the entire year," said El-Nokali, whose team finished with a 16-9 record. "In the third quarter we were down by 15 points but we still came back. Dylan got a hot hand and brought us back with his threes. He’s capable of that and he’s been doing that all season."
   With the Panthers down by 15, Leith ignited a 14-0 Panther run to cut the lead to 34-33. Leith had four three-pointers, while Alex Suguira added a basket in the run.
   "I thought we made a lot of progress this year and I’m happy with that," said Leith, who finished with a game-high 24 points. "But it’s hard to say we’re happy right now because we lost. You never want to settle for second. But I think the way we came back in the second half is something to be proud of."
   Like the championship game on Sunday, the PDS season was a comeback in itself. Last year the team finished 8-11 and this year, after a 4-0 start the team lost four of its next five. But through it all, they kept learning and improving.
   "Without a doubt, (El-Nokali) was the biggest addition to our team," Leith said. "He brought a new style and he always pushed us to get better. From Day One it was his goal for us to get to the championship. He said that right from the beginning. I think we really came together as a team as the season went on. We got closer and closer, every single kid."
   The only thing that was missing for the Panthers was a Prep B title, although they certainly came close.
   "You have to give Newark Academy credit, they played a great game," El-Nokali said. "It could have been uglier in that first half but they missed some shots they usually make. They did a good job with their zone defense and their press caused us a few problems.
   "But Dylan was able to find a few holes in their zone and he was able to get hot and get us back in the game. I think in the beginning of the game we were nervous. But I liked the way we battled back and stayed in there until the end."
   The way the Panthers have played this year, El-Nokali expected nothing less. And seeing it happen made his first season as coach that much more special.