Princeton all-time moment No. 8: The last hurrah

We’re counting down the top 10 moments in each Ivy school’s history as part of our Ivy League at 60 retrospective. We’re starting with Princeton because that’s where House was set.

By the 2010-11 season, the Ivy League landscape had undergone a radical transformation, the extent of which could be anticipated if not clearly perceived. One thing was clear: The historical domination by Penn and Princeton, which had extended well into the previous decade, was no longer. Cornell, coached by Steve Donahue and led by the remarkable Ryan Wittman, won three straight titles, capped by a stirring run to the Sweet Sixteen, and thereby moved the axis of power northward. Tommy Amaker, a power conference wolf in the Ivy League henhouse, threatened to move it even further.

A product of the ultimate big-time program as a player, and after some stops along the coaching trail at Michigan and Seton Hall, Amaker arrived in Cambridge with his controversy-laden baggage. He was hired to do one thing: WIN CHAMPIONSHIPS. Supported by his administration and a booster organization with unlimited resources and the willingness to deploy them, Amaker set about to install a machine that would set the league pace for years to come. By 2010, Amaker’s recruiting methods were producing skilled players in numbers unprecedented in Cambridge. Could anyone stop the inevitable?

At Princeton, Sydney Johnson had restored pride and confidence to a program in freefall when he arrived. The outlook for the 2010 season was hopeful. Dan Mavraides and Kareem Maddox anchored a stellar returning group which included junior sharpshooter Doug Davis and an emerging star, future Ivy Player of the Year Ian Hummer.

The Tigers dominated the League in the early going, beating Harvard at home and Penn on the road, getting off to an 11-1 start. The only blemish: a Saturday night loss at Brown … those back-to-backs! The March 5 meeting between Harvard and Princeton matched the 11-1 Tigers against the 11-2 Crimson. For Harvard, it was “win or go home.” In what turned out to be an ominous harbinger for the future, the Crimson demolished the Tigers 79-67 before a delirious sellout crowd at Lavietes Pavilion. The Tigers dispatched Penn in the season finale, setting the stage for an historic Harvard-Princeton playoff for the NCAA Tournament bid. The site for the game was Yale’s Payne Whitney Gym in New Haven.

The atmosphere in the packed gym was electric as the teams began the contest. Could the last team standing from the Old Guard stave off Harvard’s New Wave? Still basking in the glow from the smackdown of the Tigers just a week earlier, Harvard came in supremely confident and thoroughly prepared.  The history of its program meant little to this group of Tigers, who were experiencing something very new to them personally. For Sydney Johnson, however, the memory of an Ivy playoff was sweet. He had canned a huge three in the 1996 Penn playoff, ending Penn’s three-year run and sending the Tigers to Indianapolis to face the defending NCAA champion UCLA Bruins. More on that later in this series.

The playoff was a back and forth affair with neither team able to create much separation. As the clock wound down it was apparent that the final possession was likely to be crucial. With 10 seconds to go the Tigers clung to a one point lead but Harvard had the ball. Some neat passing found an open Donald Curry whose layup appeared to be the dagger, 62-61. Doug Davis went coast to coast only to run into Keith Wright and Kyle Casey, who swatted away Davis’ attempt to win the game. They swatted Davis away, too, but the call awarded the ball to the Tigers for an inbounds under the Harvard basket. The time remaining: 2.8 seconds.

Mavraides calmly found Davis along the left baseline. He dribbled toward the foul line and faked a shot, sending defender Oliver McNally into the air. Davis ducked to his left and launched the sweetest 17- footer of his great career. Tigers 63, Crimson 62. The dam held, for one more year at least.

The Tigers met Kentucky in the first round at Tampa. The Wildcats needed a miracle in their last possession to edge Princeton in Tampa, 59-57. Davis finished his career the next season as the Tigers’ second all-time leading scorer with 1550 points. Johnson, evidently sensing the ground shifting beneath his feet, took the Fairfield (!) job two weeks after the tournament. He has had little success there. Harvard has won the last four Ivy titles … and counting.