HAMILTON, Ohio -- Princeton boys’ basketball coach Leon Ellison stood outside the locker room Friday night and tried to put his first season with the Vikings in perspective.
That was a tough task on a night when Princeton shot just 33 percent in the sectional final against La Salle.
The Lancers won 38-28 in their typical defensive-minded and patient offensive outlook. Princeton just didn’t make enough shots to keep it close down the stretch.
The large crowd at Hamilton High School may have been too much for a young Princeton team that had just four seniors. But this was a feeling Ellison and his players say will make them stronger entering the 2017-18 season.
“I really feel like we have nothing to hang our heads down about,” Ellison told WCPO.com. “Moving forward we are going to keep working. We are going to be a program to be feared here. We are building a new culture.”
Just a year ago, Ellison led Division II Aiken to its first state semifinal in Columbus.
After Ellison took over at Princeton in early May 2016, he preached defense and more defense.
In fact, the Vikings didn’t work on an offensive play until mid-January when junior 6-foot-8 guard Darius Bazley became eligible to play after sitting out 11 games due to the transfer rule.
Princeton won six out of seven games after Bazley arrived on the court.
“We got better as a team,” Ellison said. “We got better individually. We got stronger. We set the foundation for what we want to be.”
Princeton won 15 games this winter -- the most since the 2011-12 season.
Still, the players wanted an opportunity at a district final in Dayton. The expectations weren’t met.
“This is not how I wanted my junior season to go,” Bazley told WCPO.com. “I feel like this is a statement year. I don’t like the feeling, especially with the seniors leaving out like this. I didn’t like that. I am not going to say my season was terrible but it wasn’t what I projected it to be. Coming into next year I am going to be definitely more prepared.”
Bazley, who is verbally committed to Ohio State and is considered the state’s top player in the 2018 class, says he remains “definitely” committed to the Buckeyes and wants to improve on all part of his game entering the AAU season.
Some of his goals for his senior season include making the McDonald’s All-America Game and the Jordan Brand Classic.
“I want to be one of those players that can play all five positions,” Bazley said. “I just want to be special. I want to make my teammates better every time I step on the court. That’s the main thing I am working on – just being different from everybody else. Not just working on one specific thing. I feel like my whole game could use some help. You can always get better. That’s how I feel right now. I just need everything to go up.”
The Vikings return leading scorer Darweshi Hunter, a junior guard who averaged 17.5 points and 2.6 rebounds. Junior guard Dominic Pierce (8.7 ppg., 4.5 rpg.) and seven freshmen are also among the returning players for next season.
“We are going to be pretty good next year,” Ellison said.
Pierce stood on the court after Friday night’s game and said he noticed the chemistry on the court toward the end of the season. He thinks that will carry over this spring and summer.
The Vikings don’t want to replicate being a sectional runner-up again.
“I don’t like this feeling at all,” Pierce said. “I am coming back next year with a lot of fire. A chip on my shoulder.”