After two very difficult road wins at Dartmouth and Harvard, the Princeton Tigers extended their winning streak to an impressive eight games, including five league contests to start down the road to the Palestra. The one consistent thread for the Tigers during this run has been rock-ribbed defense, anchored by sophomore guard Myles Stephens, who is building an All-Ivy caliber resume. A huge ingredient for the Tigers has been the senior leadership from Spencer Weisz and Steven Cook, without whose contributions a tough win at Dartmouth would have been even more difficult and an improbable comeback at Harvard impossible.
A most interesting and consequential weekend for the Tigers in New England began on Friday night in Hanover. Fortunately for Princeton, Spencer Weisz set a career scoring mark on this night with 26 points, enabling the visitors to overcome the rust of a three-week layoff and to escape Leede Arena with a narrow 69-64 victory. Their winning streak intact, the Tigers headed south to Cambridge, where last season’s championship dreams were cruelly dashed in the final week.
In the best of circumstances Lavietes Pavilion is an uncomfortable venue for visiting teams. Now, in the process of a much needed renovation, it is uncomfortable for fans as well. For some reason, it is always oppressively hot in this arena, a condition particularly troubling for a team extended to the limit just 24 hours earlier. Perhaps ominously, Harvard got off to a much better start than in any of its previous five Ivy games. Less than two minutes in Tiger center Pete Miller fouled his Crimson counterpart, freshman Chris Lewis. A clearly exasperated Henderson immediately pulled Miller, who would not return. Defending in the paint would be the responsibility of freshman Will Gladson and junior Alec Brennan. Eight minutes in, the Tiger defense was holding its own, but its offense continued to sputter. Harvard had a five-point lead, 12-7.
Six minutes later, after the teams traded a flurry of threes, a Crimson turnover was converted by Steven Cook into a layup, giving Princeton its first lead, 19-17. Slowly, but steadily, the Tigers added to the margin. A Weisz three at 1:27 extended the lead to eight, 30-22. After a Lewis layup, the teams headed to the locker room with the Tigers holding the lead, 30-24. Once again, the Tiger defense kept Princeton in control of a bigger opponent. The scoreboard advantage was based on Princeton’s seven three-pointers to Harvard’s four. Remarkably, Amir Bell was the only player on either team to attempt a free throw in the opening period.
The Tigers made a strong start to the second half, scoring the first seven points of the period in two minutes. The resulting 13-point lead was the largest the Tigers would enjoy all night.
With 12:28 remaining, Chris Lewis stole an errant pass and cruised down the court by himself. His thunderous dunk brought the Crimson crowd to its feet and cut the lead to nine. Thirty seconds later, Lewis made another steal and headed for a carbon-copy dunk. Only a last ditch intentional foul by Will Gladson, a heady play by the freshman, averted another crowd demonstration which might have undermined the Tigers’ morale at a crucial moment. The Crimson got two free throws and possession, which they used to cut the Tigers’ lead to six. But the message was clear: we will not be intimidated.
No one enjoys moments such as this more than Siyani Chambers, who has had some big games against the Tigers in his stellar career. His passing and shooting over the next six minutes spurred the Crimson on the run everyone in the building knew was coming. With 2:32 to go, two Chambers free throws drew the Crimson even at 49. A three-pointer 30 seconds later by Chambers’ heir apparent, Bryce Aiken, put the Crimson in front, 52-49.
The next two minutes will go down in Tiger annals as a miracle every bit as improbable as last year’s overtime wins at the Palestra and at Levien Gym. Amir Bell made one of two free throws at 1:42: Harvard 52-50. A Lewis jumper gave the Crimson a four- point lead, 54-50. Aiken fouled Weisz on the next possession. The senior captain made one of two: 54-51. An Aiken turnover (O, the exuberance of youth!!!) set up the ice-cold Cannady for a tying three. He is another young man born for these spots. He missed!!! Thirty-four seconds left. Lewis was fouled on the rebound but missed both chances from the line Weisz grabbed the rebound. Timeout Princeton.
Amir Bell subbed for Gladson and brought the Tigers within one, with a driving layup in traffic: 21 seconds. Timeout Harvard. With little choice, Stephens fouled Aiken, who coolly canned two free throws to restore the Crimson to a three-point advantage: 56-53. Fifteen seconds left.
The Tigers got the ball to Stephens at the left wing. Although he had an open look for a game-tying three, he elected to take the ball to the hole. The Crimson contested the shot, but it went down and so did Stephens. The blocking foul on the shot charged to freshman Justin Bassey sent Stephens to the line with a chance to tie. He missed! Making perhaps the play of his life, Steven Cook somehow corralled the rebound. He caught it, came down and was clearly jostled. No call. Maintaining control of the ball, Cook leaped high toward the hoop and dropped the most gorgeous Tiger layup since Gabe Lewullis against UCLA 21 years ago. Tigers 57-56! Timeout Harvard with 2.9 seconds left.
Harvard devised a play using two passes to get the ball to Corey Johnson, one of the better three-point artists in the League. His 30-foot effort rattled of the rim at the buzzer and the Tigers had slain the Crimson dragon. Mitch Henderson, in a rare show of emotion, exhorted the numerous Tiger fans behind his bench to join in the celebration with a fist-pumping salute. He looked like a death row inmate spared at 11:59 by a call from the governor!
When one considers the scenario that unfolded Saturday night, the improbability of a Tiger victory becomes readily apparent. First, the Tigers got zero points from the center position. Although Gladson attempted four threes, none reached the bottom of the basket. Second, Devin Cannady was shut out for the first time in his Tiger career, and, I am going to predict, the last. (When I congratulated him at the traditional alumni sponsored reception after the game, I suggested that it would have been difficult to predict a Tiger victory if one knew he would fail to score. He smiled broadly and said simply, “We got the win!”)
Third, Princeton missed eight of 14 free throws, most of those coming in the second half. Fourth, only four Tigers would enter the scoring column. Cook had 19 along with nine rebounds, Stephens 15, Weisz 13 and Bell 10. Although Harvard enjoyed an edge in rebounding , Princeton forced 17 turnovers while surrendering only 10. The Tigers had a 14-point advantage in points off turnovers.
Once again, the Tigers played a very strong game on defense holding one of the most explosive and versatile offenses in the League under 60 points. The long ride home through the cold February night was made a lot more tolerable by this stunning win. The Princeton winning streak has reached eight games, and the Tigers remain the only unbeaten team in the Ivy League.
But they have little time to savor this victory, returning to action against the winless-in-league-play Penn Quakers on Tuesday night at the Palestra. As anyone reading this should know, team records are meaningless in these games.