Princeton hangs on to turn back Penn, 61-52

In his pregame analysis of the Penn-Princeton game last night at Jadwin Gym, IHO editor-in-chief Mike Tony opined that the key to a Tiger victory would be “winning the three-point game” and avoiding the late-game collapses that have plagued Princeton in the early going this season.

On its way to a gut-wrenching 61-52 win over the Quakers, the Tigers shot gaping holes through Mr. Tony’s argument. The victory was achieved on a night the Tigers shot an abysmal 3-for-19 (16 percent) from beyond the arc and despite the Quakers overcoming a 21-point second-half Tiger lead to draw even at 44, the only time the score was tied in the game.

This one defies rational analysis. The Tigers were outshot (40 to 35 percent) and were outscored by 12 on three-pointers. The 235th edition in this long-running rivalry is a memorable entry, if something less than an artistic success.

The Tigers made few mistakes in the first half, although the defensive intensity by both clubs created a “something’s got to give” atmosphere in the building. Halfway through the opening period, the Tigers could manage only a 14-10 lead. Penn was unable to mount any coherent offense, but the home team could not take advantage. When Steven Cook went to the bench with early foul trouble, the crowd fidgeted nervously. Princeton coach Mitch Henderson sent in Amir Bell, the former starting point guard whose lackluster play earned him a demotion in December.

Bell responded with a season-high 12 points. He ignited a 25-8 Tiger run that closed the first half and continued into the second. When the lead reached 21, at 39-18, the relief among the Tiger partisans was palpable.

Penn coach Steve Donahue, realizing his team was on the verge of getting blown out, went to the drawing board. The result was a devilish 1-3-1 defensive deployment that caused immediate confusion to the Tiger offense. Encouraged by the manner in which they were able to stymie the Tigers, the Quakers began the climb back up the mountain. The ensuing 25-6 run suggested that Mike Tony may have been distressingly accurate. Ryan Betley and Jackson Donahue went on a three-point splurge, joining Darnell Foreman (17) in double figures. During this run, both Steven Cook and Spencer Weisz needed assistance to leave the court after suffering apparent leg injuries.

When Penn tied the score at 44 a sense of impending doom enveloped the cavernous arena. The scowl on Pete Carril’s face as he sat in his customary perch high above the floor that bears his name could be seen from courtside. Henderson wisely called timeout at the 6:49 mark.

The gritty Quaker defense refused to yield an open look on the Tigers’ next possession. Someone needed to make a play. As he so often has in his season and a half, Devin Cannady stepped up.  He canned a gorgeous jumper as the shot clock wound down, restoring the lead for the Tigers.

The Quakers’ freshman sensation, A.J. Brodeur, in the throes of a very frustrating night in his Ivy debut, had his pocket picked by Spencer Weisz, who returned to the court in full possession of his faculties. Myles Stephens converted the turnover into one of the Tigers’ few three-pointers from deep in the right corner. The Quakers would get no closer than four points behind in the final five minutes.

Cannady and Weisz made six free throws in the final 37 seconds to ice the victory. On the evening the Tigers had a clear advantage from the charity stripe, making 24 of 28 to the Quakers’ 11 of 20.

The player of the game for the Tigers was sophomore Myles Stephens, who added to his already bulging resume. The young man referred to by the redoubtable Mike James as one of the league’s “most underrated” might not be for much longer. He grabbed a career-high 10 rebounds, including four on the offensive glass, one more than the Quakers’ entire team. He had two assists and got credit for a blocked shot. In truth, he altered at least four other Quaker attempts from in close. Spencer Weisz contributed five steals.

Princeton’s sixth straight victory in this most entertaining series was its 111th against 124 losses. The Tigers lost the three-point war and suffered a shocking collapse, but somehow they held on.

Next weekend, Ivy play continues for the Tigers with home games against Brown and Yale before the  annual three-week exam break.

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