Princeton’s recent trip to Minnesota started and ended in the dark, the way so many plane trips for Tiger squads do. But it was what happened in between, the ups and downs, that made it memorable.
By just looking at the scores from the two games Princeton played in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, you may think it was a trip the Tigers would rather forget. Host Minnesota handed Princeton a 25-point defeat and Maine seized a tight game in the final minutes the next day to send the Orange and Black back East at 1-2 when the team had arrived 1-0.
But certainly the reasons why the student-athletes compete don’t end with the outcome of games. It’s all the other stuff, the things people outside the bus don’t see, that makes the experience what it is.
The Minnesota trip was the first of four excursions the program scheduled with those on its roster in mind. An unofficial goal when it comes to scheduling for the women’s basketball team is that everyone will get to play in her home area during her four years. For Twin Cities natives Ali Prichard and Jillian Schurle, this was their time.
It started before the sun came up on a Friday morning. The Stout’s bus sat as bundled players, coaches and staff boarded it for the ride to Newark, where the Tigers would catch a plane headed west. The usual downtime at group check-in followed as each person in the 21-member travel party waited for a bag tag and clearance to do more waiting at the gate. Flying may get you there faster, but there’s something to be said for just getting on the bus and going.
A few hours later, the tiny plane had wound its way to Minneapolis. A brief snow flurry greeted the passengers outside the plane’s windows and see-your-breath cold was in store when the team boarded the bus it would have for the weekend. It made its way around the Twin Cities freeways past the Mall of America, through downtown Minneapolis and onto the East Bank of the Mississippi River, home to the University of Minnesota.
The bus pulled up alongside the University Recreation Center, across the street from Williams Arena, where the weekend’s games would be played. But the Tigers would have to wait a day to see The Barn, as the locals call it, taking their two-hour practice behind a yellow drop-down curtain.
Minnesota’s student rec center is an impressive four-story facility, but Princeton’s players sequestered themselves to only a small portion of it. As students played pickup basketball on one side of the plastic divider, high up on the fourth floor, the Tigers maneuvered around hardwood lined for basketball, volleyball and badminton below backboards that reminded players not to hang on the rim.
The accomodation suited at least one Tiger just fine.
“This place has a milk vending machine,” said senior Shelly Slemp, whose family operates a dairy farm at her southwestern Virginia home. “I love the Midwest!”
Only after traveling and working up a sweat at practice did the Princeton party check into its hotel, a Radisson downtown amid the network of skyways and high rises in the city’s core. Still, time for lounging was short.
The bus returned to shuttle the Tigers deep into the suburbs and a different world from the bustling inner city. Here, on a quiet cul-de-sac, the bus emptied and Princeton’s near two-dozen were welcomed by parents, relatives and friends of the Minnesota players’ families, filling the Schurles’ orange-and-black decorated living room with chatter and laughter while digging into the pasta the local parents cooked up. It was a scene the opposite of the practice the team had just a few hours earlier, trading perspiration for conversation.
It didn’t take long to tire out the Tiger bunch, many having gotten up before 5 a.m. that day, to see nightfall descend once again.
The next morning, after a breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant, the Tigers finally got to play on the Williams Arena floor for the pre-game shootaround.
Imagine Penn’s Palestra, but with a second deck and a raised floor. It’s an old, squarish building where modern luxuries now expected, like individual seat-back chairs and brand new boxes called Barn Lofts, have replaced rows of seats. The building’s attendance record is more than 20,000, and even with scaling back the capacity to 14,625 with the addition of the accoutrements, it’s difficult to see how the Gophers ever fit so many people in a relatively small arena. It must be a loud place to play.
The raised floor is another unique feature of Williams, one of only a few in use. The playing surface is a few feet above everything else, including the benches, scorer’s table and media areas. There are no high-dollar courtside seats here where patrons are close enough to stretch out and trip a player. The only things at true floor level are 10 players, two head coaches, three officials and a basketball.
The Minnesota women’s team didn’t always play at Williams. Adjacent to the basketball arena is the Sports Pavilion, a mini-Williams now home to the Gophers’ volleyball and wrestling teams. In January 2002, the season in which the Gopher women made their first of what is now a five-year streak of NCAA Tournament appearances, a water pipe burst in the empty gym and rendered the floor unplayable. The first game in Williams after the mishap drew over 10,000 fans and the team has played there ever since.
Williams was not a kind place to Princeton that Saturday as the Tigers nearly closed two double-digit deficits in the first half, but a 12-0 run late in the opening period proved too much for the Orange and Black in an 85-60 loss to the Gophers. The next day, in a nip-and-tuck battle with Maine, the Black Bears converted down the stretch where the Tigers didn’t and Maine emerged with a 69-63 win.
Following the Maine game, the Princeton contingent boarded its bus one last time to head back to the airport, go through the process once again and fly east, arriving close to when Sunday turned into Monday.
Time to ponder the weekend’s pair of games, as with most sports in-season, would be short. There were practices to plan in the week ahead, a new opponent to scout and a team Thanksgiving to be had. And yet another game to come.