Not since the glory days of the Penn-Princeton rivalry in the last century has a game of basketball in Jadwin Gym matched the intensity of last night’s win over the Yale Bulldogs. Whatever each team brought to the floor – and each is very talented – was left on the floor.
The defending Ivy champions arrived in Jadwin after taking down an improving Penn squad at the Palestra on Friday, barely a week after the Tigers struggled mightily with the Quakers at home.
James Jones coached the last Ivy team to beat the Tigers in Princeton and that was nearly two years ago. Since then he has won two Ivy titles, one outright, but lost Justin Sears, Brandon Sherrod and Makai Mason. Their replacements, Miye Oni, Jordan Bruner and Alex Copeland, may reach similar heights, but last night the finest defensive effort of the Mitch Henderson era held the Bulldogs at bay until Princeton’s offense came to life in the second half.
The result was a tremendously satisfying 65-58 victory, sending the Tigers into exam break atop the Ivy League at 3-0.
The Tiger defense was particularly effective in the first half, holding Yale to a season-low 22 points in the frame. Princeton was unable to take advantage, however, as the offense struggled to put the ball in the basket, despite numerous good looks. A night after shooting 65 percent overall in a 97-66 rout of Brown, including 12-for-24 from beyond the three-point line, the Tigers failed to reach 30 percent in the first half. Princeton managed a grotesque 1-for-15 on three-point attempts in stanza one.
But, when a resurgent Amir Bell, on his way to a third straight double-figure night in Ivy play, went coast to coast in the final five seconds, his layup in traffic gave the Tigers the lead, 24-22.
The scoring pace picked up in the second half for both clubs, as the lead changed hands multiple times. After eight minutes, the Bulldogs were up by five, 40-35. A Myles Stephens three-pointer, followed by another (this time by Bell), restored the Tigers to the lead. Two more tough inside shots by Stephens made it 45-40, completing a 10-0 Tiger run with 9:34 to play.
Two minutes later, the Bulldogs once again cut the lead to one. Once again, Stephens responded, this time with a 15-footer.
Yale, refusing to go quietly, worked the ball inside to Sam Downey for a much-too-easy layup. On the Tigers’ next trip, Steven Cook missed a jump shot, The rebound bounced crazily over the baseline, appearing to give Yale possession. Literally out of nowhere, a lunging Pete Miller blindly flipped the ball back to the court where it found a grateful Steven Cook, who did not miss his second chance: 52-49 Tigers.
Alex Copeland gave the Bulldogs their last lead at the 3:04 mark, 53-52. Bell’s fabulous move to the hoop produced a two-pointer and one. On the Tigers’ next possession, Bell’s long three with 1:58 left put the game out of reach for the Bulldogs. Two more Bell free throws extended the lead to 10 with 42 seconds left, clinching the 65-58 Princeton victory.
Copeland’s 21 points marked Yale’s team high. Bruner joined him in double figures with 15. Copeland’s play is clearly reminiscent of Makai Mason.
Six second half three pointers helped the Tigers a great deal. Myles Stephens canned 19 points, besting his career mark set the previous evening, by one. He also grabbed seven rebounds and played lockdown defense. Bell’s season high 17 points, 12 of which came in the crucial second half, indicates that he is more than ready to assume a huge role for the Tigers in the Ivy season. Cook and Spencer Weisz added double figures for the Tigers. The Bulldogs were effective in limiting Devin Cannady to just seven points, one night after he torched Brown for 29, going 7-for-9 from three-point land.
Stephens has clearly emerged as the Tigers’ best defender and, quite possibly, Princeton’s most indispensable man. His offensive game is versatile and productive, both inside and out. He is playing at an All-Ivy level at this point, turning in game-changing performances each night.
Princeton’s anachronistic academic schedule creates a three-week hiatus for the Tigers. They do not return to action until February 3 and 4, at Dartmouth and Harvard.