Spirits were high at Jadwin Gym as last night’s battle for second place between the Tigers and Harvard got underway before a hyped up home crowd and a national TV (ESPNews) audience. Most knowledgeable observers and the oddsmakers predicted a one-possession game in the final minute, the type of game in which home court advantage might be crucial. For the most part, the somewhat limited success Princeton coach Mitch Henderson has enjoyed against Harvard coach Tommy Amaker has been at home.
Both teams experienced lackluster performances last week. The Tigers lost twice on the road (Yale and Brown) while the Crimson were stretched to the limit in a triple overtime win at home against Columbia, followed by a second-half collapse against Cornell on Saturday. Amaker surprised the Ivy community with a rare public putdown of his team, calling his players’ performance against the Big Red “selfish.”
The shoo-in All-Ivy point guard unleashed a Niagara Falls of scoring last week, including 45 against Columbia, almost willing his team to the win last Friday night.
The following Friday night, Aiken’s work against the Tigers would again prove decisive in a 78-69 victory for the visitors, in which Aiken outscored Princeton 20-19 himself in the final 8:10.
A fast start by the constantly improving Richmond Aririguzoh (RA) pushed the Tigers to a 15-8 lead after seven minutes. Undeterred, Harvard used some excellent ball movement and timely shooting to turn things around quickly. The Crimson reclaimed the lead, 21-19, with 9:33 remaining. From that point, Noah Kirkwood, a dazzling freshman talent, and Justin Bassey stymied the Tigers over the next three minutes, extending the visitors’ lead to 32-25. Jaelin Llewellyn’s lone three-pointer for the evening, followed quickly by a Sebastian Much bomb, one of 4 for the Californian, enabled the Tigers to get within one point, 33-32, at the break.
Aiken’s nine and RA’s eight were high for each team at that point. Henderson was quite satisfied with the defensive work of Myles Stephens on Aiken. Once again, Stephens was assigned to the opponent’s best player. Perhaps ominously for the Tigers, Devin Cannady’s first start at home following his three-game suspension was not going well. He was 0-for-4 from beyond the arc and 0-for-1 from the line. For all that, the Tigers were encouraged by the fact that the statistical battle was a virtual standoff through he first 20 minutes. Harvard’s six made free throws to three for the Tigers accounted for the slim Crimson advantage on the scoreboard.
Harvard controlled the play early in the second half, seizing a 42-37 lead after three minutes. A Much-needed (forgive me!) three-pointer kept the Tigers close. His tough layup at the 13:38 mark restored the lead for the Tigers and spurred a five-minute spurt by Princeton tom its largest lead of the evening 54-48 with 8:33 remaining.
With the Tigers holding a one-point lead at the 13:13 mark, Aiken crumpled to the floor in apparent agony. He had twisted his right ankle and was helped to the bench. Fortunately for the Crimson, he was back on the floor in less than a minute.
His presence turned the game around in a way observers will not soon forget.
An Aiken layup cut the lead to four with 8:10 left. RA countered with a layup. On the next Crimson possession, Aiken found himself isolated on Jose Morales. His eyes widened. With the clock running down, Aiken launched a long three-pointer. Morales committed the cardinal sin, sending Aiken to the line to complete the four-point play. Over the next three minutes plus, Aiken posted 11 points, propelling Harvard to a 10-point lead, 70-60, with 3:53 to play.
The Tigers eventually cut Harvard’s lead to 70-64 but would get no closer.
Aiken’s 24 second-half points showcased another phenomenal performance in his team’s successful effort to hold on to a share of second place in the Ivy standings at 5-2. The Tigers third straight loss leaves them at 4-3, still very much alive in the Ivy race.
For Princeton, RA shared scoring honors with Cannady (15), and both Tigers added three assists. Defensively, Aririguzoh held Chris Lewis to nine points in 18 minutes and Henry Welsh to none in 15. Sebastian Much had 14 points in 19 minutes. Jerome Desrosiers pitched in with seven points and five rebounds, all in the first half. He appeared just briefly in the second stanza. Cannady and Llewellyn combined to shoot 2-for-12 from deep. Harvard’s 10 threes to eight for Princeton spelled doom for the home team.
Looking ahead to tonight’s encounter with Dartmouth, one expects RA to get more touches and Morales less. A win tonight may be a critical component in the Tigers’ bid to return to Ivy Madness. A loss turns a promising start to the Ivy season into a desperate struggle to remain relevant.