Myles Stephens: The silent assassin

The silent assassin strikes in one of his louder moments. (Princeton Athletics)

Just moments after his Yale Bulldogs were eliminated by the Princeton Tigers in the inaugural Ivy League Tournament, James Jones faced a contingent of media reps seeking his analysis of the tourney final.

Jones does not parse his words. He said that during a timeout in the second half, called to halt the gathering Tiger momentum, he noticed on the stat sheet that Myles Stephens, the Tiger sophomore, had scored 18 points. He turned to an assistant and asked, “How did that happen? That’s the quietest 18 points I have ever seen.” He described Stephens as “the silent assassin.”

Stephens, named the tourney’s MVP, finished with 23 on the top of the team-leading 21 the afternoon before against Penn. His most important score of the season was the putback against the Quakers with five seconds remaining in regulation, tying the score for the sixth and last time in a game the Tigers never once held a lead in regulation. His 18 rebounds for the weekend also led the team.

Properly recognized as the Ivy League’s Defensive Player of the Year, Stephens is usually assigned to the other team’s best forward, although he has often guarded bigger men in the paint and smaller ones in the backcourt. Against Penn he drew the unenviable task of trying to keep up with Matt Howard, against whom Stephens had played very well in the Tigers’ 64-49 blowout at The Palestra on February 7. Howard rose to the occasion this time, canning 17 points on Saturday in 44 minutes of action, a huge factor in Penn’s near upset.

In the final, Stephens shadowed Yale’s freshman sensation Miye Oni. The rookie was a key contributor in the Bulldogs’ semifinal victory over archrival Harvard. The Tigers with Stephens held him to three points on 1-for-7 from the field. Oni did not get to the free throw line once in 37 minutes.

The Silent Assassin strikes.

Stephens and Devin Cannady torched Yale in New Haven, combining for 49 points, just two less than Yale’s team total of 51. The same combination came to life in the second period of the tournament final, producing 25 points in the final 20 minutes, enabling the Tigers to stretch a one-point halftime lead into a 12-point final margin.

It is, of course, well known that Princeton lost 40 percent of its starting lineup by mid-December. Immediately following the December 13 departure of All-Ivy forward Henry Caruso the rattled Tigers lost two more games to St. Joseph’s and at Monmouth, dropping their record to 4-6 as they prepared to face eventual Patriot League champion Bucknell in Lewisburg. With Stephens firmly entrenched in the starting lineup and Cannady taking over the point guard role the Tigers earned a hugely important victory. Eighteen more victories followed that one, including an historic 16-0 run through the Ivy League. Myles Stephens established himself as the one truly indispensable player on a team that features two unanimous All-Ivy first teamers, one of whom is the Player of the Year.

Stephens’ contributions on offense are often overshadowed by the explosiveness of Steven Cook, the three point artillery showers of Devin Cannady and the all-around efficiency of Spencer Weisz. But all of these players have experienced frustrating periods of inconsistency. Stephens has not. The talented sophomore is the Tigers’ leading scorer in the Ivy League season, averaging 15.4 points per game. His 44 points in the tournament boosted his average over the 16-point mark. He outscored Cook and Weisz, his All-Ivy teammates, by 66 and 88 respectively. The league’s most tenacious defender and a rebounder who can bang with the Ivy’s best big men, committed less than two personal fouls per game, easily the best average among Tiger starters.

When Stephens joined the starting lineup Princeton experienced addition by subtraction. The rotation jelled and a superstar emerged from a team loaded with stars. James Jones described the Tigers’ miracle run this way: “Sometimes the stars align for you and you get Orion.”

The Tigers face an enormous task Thursday in Buffalo against one of the better quintets from the nation’s best conference, the fifth-seeded Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Mike Brey will have to figure out how to stop Myles Stephens. Good luck with that.