PRINCETON – The Tigers played a wild and weird game last night, opening its home schedule against BYU of the West Coast Conference. Having defeated Gonzaga in Spokane three times in three years, the Cougars were not likely to be intimidated by the hangar-like atmosphere of Jadwin Gym. They weren’t.
With 7:38 to go in the second half, the Cougars’ Zac Seljaas, perhaps the best outside shooter in BYU history, canned a long three to give his team a 48-43 lead, prompting Mitch Henderson to call a 30-second timeout.
The Tigers coach, for some reason not apparent to onlookers, went full Vesuvius on the officials. He was clearly bothered by his team’s treatment by the referees, a state of affairs he determined to be particularly galling at home. The nearest official found Henderson’s breach of decorum to be itself galling and worthy of two technical fouls, sending Henderson to the locker room and the Cougars’ best free-throw shooter, Elijah Bryant, to the line for four shots. Of course, he made all four, breaking open what had been a close, if somewhat sloppily played, contest.
The leaderless Tigers managed to rally within two briefly at the 2:59 mark on a gorgeous corner three by rookie Ryan Schwieger. But his foul a few seconds later on BYU’s T.J. Haws while attempting a three of his own resulted in three made free throws, enabling the Cougars to skate out of danger.
The final was BYU 65, Princeton 56.
At this point early in the season, the Tigers are searching for an identity. After losing the rebounding battle at Butler, the Tigers dominated the Cougars on the boards, 36-23. On the offensive glass, where the Tigers failed to snag even rebound in Indiana, Princeton’s advantage last evening was a remarkable 14-1. All to no avail.
Princeton turned the ball over 19 times, perhaps a factor in Henderson’s sour mood, while shooting a dismal 37 percent from the field, nearly 20 percent worse than in the opener. Amir Bell and Myles Stephens, who scored 43 between them against Butler, managed a mere 12 against the Cougars, making five of 23 field goal attempts. Devin Cannady was the leading scorer for the Tigers with 19 in a career-high 40 minutes played. Bell and Stephens once again played 35 minutes or more, a troubling stat frankly.
Rookies Sebastian Much and Ryan Schwieger appeared much more comfortable in their second game as each showed flashes of excellence. Senior Mike LeBlanc contributed a very productive 24 minutes, earning him a place in the rotation going forward.
One stat hurts like a toothache: BYU got to the line 27 times, for 25 points, while the Tigers went 9-for-12, a 16-point difference in a nine-point game.
Of course, one might speculate that the Tigers would have prevailed if Henderson had not been excused from further participation. But it is clear that, without him, their prospects dimmed considerably.
Two games into the season, Henderson is searching for the right combination, or combinations, of players for various court situations. One senses that the search will end with at least two of the freshmen very much in the picture. Patience is required and a lot of time remains before the Ivy war begins in January.
One also senses that The Big Three (Bell, Cannady and Stephens) cannot be called upon to play more than 30 minutes each night, as they have in the first two contests.
St. Joseph’s is next up for Princeton in Philadelphia on Saturday. Until last night, Phil Martelli’s Hawks were the only visiting team to win at Jadwin in more than two years.