The Tigers returned to Madison Square Garden for the first time since 2000 to play the St. John’s Red Storm in the Holiday Festival. For decades, the Holiday Festival was the premier event of the preseason, played between Christmas and New Year’s, employing an actual tournament format.
The final in 1964 was one of the most memorable games in that entire season, matching Bill Bradley’s Tigers against Cazzie Russell’s Michigan Wolverines. Bradley canned 41 before fouling out with the Tigers holding a 12-point lead. The five-minute ovation he received was unmatched in Garden history. Alas, the Wolverines fought back, winning 80-78.
In Dec. 1997, Princeton beat Drexel and Niagara to win the Festival title on its way to a 27-2 record and an eighth-place national ranking in the final AP poll of that season. Current Princeton coach Mitch Henderson was a Tiger co-captain.
In 2018, the Holiday Festival is nothing more than an opportunity for players to showcase their skills in the World’s Most Famous Arena. Two Tiger foes, Columbia and Iona, squared off in an entertaining opener. The Lions snuck by the Gaels, 74-71.
Tiger fans were thrilled to see Jaelin Llewellyn in the starting lineup, making his collegiate debut. The youngster did not disappoint, demonstrating a full range of skills: shooting, passing, speed and terrific ball handling. He is very much the real deal. He scored 17 points, including three of seven from deep, and dished out four assists in his 36 minutes of action.
Unfortunately, the Red Storm had too much firepower, beating the Tigers 89-74 in a contest closer than the final score might suggest. In the first half, St. John’s appeared ready to make it a runaway, taking a 35-26 lead at the 6:30 mark. A gutsy 12-3 Tiger run tied the score at 38. Princeton trailed by a manageable three at the break.
Four minutes into the second half, the Tigers cut the deficit to just one, 49-48. At that point the Red Storm appeared to break it open,. Using superior size and strength, as well as some fantastic shooting, they increased the lead to 64-50 with about 12 minutes remaining.
Trailing 77-59 with seven minutes left, the Tigers refused to back down. The ensuing 15-3 run, perhaps the best sequence of the year, made it a six-point game, 80-74, at the three-minute mark. The Tigers would get no closer.
Devin Cannady thrilled the Garden crowd with several NBA-range threes, on his way to a team high 18 points. Richmond Aririguzoh (14) and Jose Morales (13) also reached double figures, each for the third straight game. Will Gladson returned to action, playing effectively in the five-spot, much to the delight and relief of Henderson. Myles Stephens remains in a funk, scoring only six. He was not a major factor at either end of the court. The Tigers as a team turned the ball over 20 times, as much a factor as any in the loss. While the Red Storm defense was responsible for most of the turnovers, too many were of the unforced variety.
St. John’s had five players in double figures lead by “can’t miss” NBA prospect Shamorie Ponds, the best player the Tigers have faced this year. His 26 points were produced in just about every way possible. Chris Mullins’ club is off to their first 9-0 start in over 20 years. You can expect them to contend for honors in the Big East.
The Tigers can take away some huge positives from this game. They showed tremendous fight all the way. Considering that the team had not played with Llewellyn, you can expect improvement as he blends in going forward. Henderson employed several different zone looks, perhaps loading a weapon that will be used in Ivy play. With the speed of Cannady, Morales and Llewellyn, one might expect some increased ball pressure. All three were on the court at the same time for several long stretches, making the lineup rather small but, given the way they performed, it will not be surprising to see them together frequently. RA can now be classified as a major and consistent contributor providing rim protection, a critical need with a small lineup.
Princeton plays Iona in Atlantic City on Saturday, which should give an indication of how the Tigers compare with Columbia. The road trip to Duke awaits on Dec. 18, a fearful prospect after the Blue Devils dismantled Yale yesterday.