Princeton’s lost Ivy League season reached its mid-point this weekend with a tough battle at Brown on Friday, resulting in a rare road win, and an even tougher struggle at Yale, the next evening, resulting in a heartbreaking OT loss, 66-65. The Tigers’ record is a disappointing 2-5, better only than Dartmouth, where the Tigers also lost in overtime, and Cornell.
T.J. Bray hoisted the Tigers on his broad shoulders this week, scoring 46 points on the road, vaulting his name into the center of the POY discussion. In his head-to-head confrontation with Brown’s All-Ivy candidate, Sean McGonagill, Bray emerged the clear winner. His 26 points led all scorers, while McGonagill managed a respectable 16, but shot only 4-15 from the field.
Despite McGonagill’s struggles the Bears raced to an eight point lead in the first half. The Tigers closed to 35-32 at the break, giving every indication that they intended to hang around.
The teams sparred early in the second half, and when McGonagill made an old-fashioned 3-point play at 11:49, the Bears took a 50-49 lead. But the Tigers held them scoreless for the next 6 minutes. TJ Bray ignited the Princeton offense on a 10-0 run and a lead it would not relinquish. In the final 12 minutes, Bray scored 13 of his 26 to seal the win. For the game, the senior captain shot 10-14, including 2 of 3 from behind the arc. He threw in five assists and two steals for good measure.
Tiger freshmen Steven Cook and Peter Miller are gaining in maturity and vital experience in each game. In this one, they combined to shoot 7 of 9 from the field. Down the stretch, however, veterans Bray and Chris Clement were there to maintain control. Twice in the last minute, the Tigers fouled with a three point lead, denying the Bears a chance to tie, but putting pressure on themselves to convert the inevitable fouls from the Bear defenders. Bray and Clement each made two at the right time.
On Saturday evening at the John J. Lee Amphitheater in the Payne-Whitney Sports Palace on the campus of Yale University in the City of New Haven, the mood was celebratory. The Bulldogs had won on Friday to hold on to their share of first place. The partisan crowd did not consider the presence of the 6th place Tigers much more than a sideshow leading up to the looming showdown with the Crimson for the League lead. Prior to the game, author Ed Breslin was ensconced just inside the arena’s main entrance, signing copies of his ode to James Jones and the Bulldogs’ 2011-12 season in which they finished 3rd, behind the Tigers. (Pretentiously titled The Divine Nature of Basketball and reviewed on this site on February 4, the book was intended to focus on the OTHER Jones, Joe, who was coaching at Columbia at the time. Perhaps it was divine intervention that sent Joe to Boston College, but who can say?) On the court, a baton twirler warmed up for her evening show. The game was evidently intended to entertain the fans between her sets.
Both teams struggled early, perhaps feeling the effects of playing on consecutive nights for the third straight week. Neither team managed a field goal in the first five minutes, the only scoring coming on two Tiger FTs. Yale never got untracked in the first period, especially after Justin Sears went to the bench with two personals. The Tiger defense, inspired by its strong finish the previous evening, displayed great and most welcome energy throughout the half, holding the Bulldogs to a mere 19 points. Princeton took an 11-point lead to the locker room. Two factors raised ominous signs for the Tigers though: 1) Virtually every call went their way in the first half, something that was bound to change. It did. 2) Sears had not been a factor, something that was bound to change. It did.
Continuing a disturbing trend that has hurt Princeton lately, the Tigers shot miserably, particularly from long range, in the second half. Yale, led by a resurgent Sears, chipped away, finally reclaiming the lead with about ten minutes to go. Neither team could put the other away, as they traded punches down the stretch. The Tigers turned again and again to Bray, who answered almost every call. The Wisconsin product scored 16 of his game-high 20 points in the second half and OT. Of the Tigers’ 9 in the extra session, Bray got 8. Trailing 56-51 at the 1:00 minute mark, Bray converted 2 FTs to make it 56-53. The Tigers got the ball back on an Armani Cotton turnover with about half a minute left. Senior Will Barrett then drove the lane, made a lay-up and drew a foul. In a scene eerily reminiscent of the Dartmouth game in Hanover earlier this month, he made the FT to tie the game at 56 and send it into OT.
In the extra frame, Bray did what he could, but the Bulldogs hung on. A putback by Sears with 4 seconds gave the Bulldogs their final lead, 66-65. A clearly spent TJ Bray went the length of the floor in about three seconds but could not get a shot off as time expired. The Bulldogs escaped a challenge from the dangerous Tigers.
A further word about T.J. Bray is merited. His stat line for the Yale contest is dazzling: 20 points (game high), 7 rebounds, 3 steals, and 3 assists (all team highs). While it might be extremely difficult for a player from a bottom half team to rate highly enough to win POY honors, he will surely receive consideration. If the Tigers can defend their home court (5 of 7 at home to finish the season), Bray will necessarily lead the way.