The Tigers entered their annual three-week winter exam break riding an emotional wave. Five straight wins following the expected wipeout at Duke, including two stunning wins over Big 5 champion Penn, catapulted the Tigers to the top of the Ivy heap at 2-0. Princeton coach Mitch Henderson hoped that the layoff would not impact the Tigers’ momentum facing the first two back-to-backs on the road.
Henderson’s focus has been to instill a mind set based on team defense. With senior co-captain Myles Stephens and junior big man Richmond Aririguzoh (RA) leading the way the Tigers’ defensive identity emerged emphatically in the modest winning streak. Devin Cannady, the other co-captain, anchored the offense while leading the team in scoring and rebounding. The talented sophomores, Jerome Desrosiers, Sebastian Much and Ryan Schwieger, were settling into their roles as well. Freshman Jaelin Llewellyn is developing into the primary ball handler and point defender, while struggling to gain his shooting touch.
And then, in the middle of the exam break, the momentum-killer no one imagined suddenly occurred. The Trentonian reported that Cannady, heading toward several Tiger career records and second-place on the all-time scoring list, was arrested by campus police as a result of a violent confrontation at a local Wawa at 3:30 a.m. Within hours, the University announced that Cannady was suspended from the team for “violation of team rules.”
Three weeks later, no further information has been disclosed from an investigation which has leaked less than the Mueller probe. Cannady does travel with the team and offers encouragement to his teammates during games.
The Tigers would face six weeks of back-to-backs without knowing if, or when, Cannady might return. The first grueling test would take the Tigers to Columbia and Cornell, where they suffered humiliating losses last season.
Henderson, by necessity as much as by design, has fostered a “next man up” attitude in Jadwin. When the ill-fated Hans Brase went down in 2015 and again in 2016, Pete Miller developed into a major contributor on very good teams.
When All-Ivy forward Henry Caruso left school in the middle of his junior year, sophomore Myles Stephens stepped into the starting lineup. Sixteen games later, he was the Ivy Defensive Player of the Year.
This season, junior Will Gladson was expected to handle most of the work at the five-spot, but lingering injuries kept him out of action. Enter RA, who is playing as well as any big man in the League, having recently outplayed Penn’s great AJ Brodeur twice.
No one has the skill set of Devin Cannady. At Columbia, Henderson started Ryan Schwieger in his spot, believing Schwieger’s height would create some matchups which the North Carolinian might be able to exploit. To counter the Lions’ current Ivy Player of the Week, Gabe Stefanini, who torched Cornell twice, Henderson assigned Myles Stephens. Poor Gabe … he shot 2-for-10 from the field and scored just five points.
Defensively, the Tigers recorded their best effort in a year, holding the Lions to 17 first-half tallies, while doubling them up, 34-17.
The second half did not go as well. Tiger turnovers took an early toll (they suffered 15 in the game). The Lions managed a 15-5 run to cut the lead to 39-32 at the midway point. They would get no closer.
While the Tiger offense without Cannady could produce only 55 points, the defense yielded 43.
Stephens (17 points, 13 rebounds) achieved his fifth double-double of the season, the third straight in Ivy play. RA’s 11 rebounds set a new career high for him. Next-man-up Schwieger tied his career high with 15 points, as he was able to exploit the matchups Henderson anticipated.
The Tigers had little time to celebrate, as they faced the five-hour ride to frigid Ithaca, seeking revenge for last year’s triple-overtime loss that eventually vaulted Cornell into the Ivy tourney and the Tigers out. When word reached Princeton that the Big Red scored 80 points to defeat Penn, the mood on the bus darkened.
Henderson knew he would need to spread minutes on Saturday night. Jose Morales’s role was bound to be enhanced in the absence of Cannady. He was on the floor at Columbia for 29 minutes but hardly stood out on a team that shot 35 percent and 4-for-20 from beyond the arc. Henderson had no idea just how crucial Morales’s role would be on this night.
The Tiger offense produced efficiently in the first half against the Big Red. Princeton shot 62 percent in the first 20 minutes while holding Cornell to 32 percent. Once again, Stephens was assigned to the opponents’ best player, Matt Morgan, who is Cornell’s all-time leading scorer and who is projected to finish his career as the Ivy League’s second career scorer. Stephens held Morgan to four in the first period.
The Tigers went to the locker room holding an anything but comfortable 31-23 lead. Once again, defense was the key to the Tigers’ effort.
The two teams went back and forth early in the second period. Princeton enjoyed its largest lead, 40-30, about five minutes in. At that point fate tossed another roadblock across the Tigers’ path. Jaelin Llewellyn went down in a heap attempting to get to the basket on an acrobatic drive. His tender right ankle, bothersome all year, was once again twisted. He would not return.
Next Man Up. The diminutive Jose Morales was now the primary ball handler and floor general. Cornell took immediate advantage, mounting an inevitable run, 11-2, cutting the lead to 42-41. The last several minutes of these Saturday night games can turn into battles of attrition as fatigue exerts its grip and the intensity of a close game increases the pressure. This game fell into that pattern, as fouls and turnovers abounded. For the game Princeton committed an ugly 18 turnovers, usually a deadly statistic. The last 12 minutes looked like a street fight as both teams enjoyed slight leads but neither could hold on. When Morales committed his fourth personal, Henderson was forced to pull him on defense almost every trip down the floor. Josh Warren made two free throws in the last two minutes, the only scoring for both squads, to get Cornell even at the end of regulation, 56-56. Morgan was held to 13.
Fortunately for the Tigers, this latest trip to OT was somewhat anticlimactic. Two Stephens free throws gave the Tigers a lead, but Morgan countered with a long three. Once again, the Tiger defense stiffened, as the Big Red was kept off the board for the next 3:45. The Tigers got nine free throws from four different players over that stretch and were able to hold on, 70-61, a most difficult victory. At 4-0, the Tigers sit alone on top of the Ivy standings, but its perch is precarious indeed. A trip to New Haven and Providence looms. The status of Llewellyn and Cannady for that trip is unknown.
The heroes for Princeton include Stephens, who gave Morgan nightmares while canning 15 points. RA had another phenomenal night, scoring 20 points on 6-for-6 shooting and 8-for-10 from the free throw line. Schwieger scored 14 in an exhausting 44 minutes of action. He helped hold Boeheim to 1-for-9 from the field. Morales, the sparkplug, gave his coach 23 minutes of all-out effort.
Henderson expects his defense to keep the Tigers in every game. If he can get the offense to click, especially his three-point guys, the Tigers will be a tough game on everybody’s schedule.