Princeton-Harvard matchups in the Tommy Amaker era are usually exciting, closely fought contests, often with title or tournament implications for both teams.
For tonight’s Senior Night celebration, fans were invited back to the arena to bid fond farewell to an amazing group of players who were adversely affected by the COVID-19-imposed restrictions on their college careers: Ethan Wright, Drew Friberg, Jaelin Llewellyn, Elijah Barnes, Max Johns and Charlie Bagin.
The Crimson came in with a somewhat disappointing Ivy record of 5-6 but still had a very good shot at reaching the Ivy League Tournament they will host in two weeks. Amaker has built much of his success as a coach on his ability to navigate through the minefield of injuries teams suffer over the grind of a long season.
This year, Amaker’s problems have been huge. His team leader, Noah Kirkwood, has put this team on his strong back lately, including a tremendous 30-point effort last week in an overtime win against Cornell, the Crimson’s chief rival for a tournament berth.
The stage was set for what was sure to be an entertaining collision between two marquee Ivy programs. The home crowd of 2,300 was not disappointed.
The Tigers got off to a good start as Llewellyn and Elijah Barnes (starting on Senior Night) each hit early threes to establish a 6-0 Tiger lead. Kirkwood would have none of it. His five straight points set the tone for the evening. The Tigers realized they would have to ride a wave of threes to outscore the high-octane Crimson offense. A Wright three pointer and two more by Drew Friberg gave the home club an eight-point advantage, 19-11, halfway through the opening period. Mason Forbes and Kale Catchings shredded the Tiger defense over the next four minutes to take control of the game and the score, enabling the visitors to grab a 26-21 lead.
Ryan Langborg got on the three-point train and Friberg added his third of the half to get the Tigers within three at 34-31 with 2:38 to go. A minute later, Kirkwood, who was scoring from everywhere, gave his club a 38-33 lead as the half was winding down. Another Ethan Wright three, the eighth of the half for the Tigers, sent the teams to the locker room with the Crimson ahead 38-36.
Both teams had some adjustments to make for the second half. Amaker had experimented with a zone in the first half which seemed to slow down the three-point-fusillade somewhat. The Tigers were certain to see it again in the second stanza. Incredibly, for such a physical game, the Crimson did not commit a personal foul in the first half, while the Tigers had but four infractions. Neither team would find any of its key personnel in foul jeopardy.
Although the Tigers have played well defensively in their recent run to qualify for the tournament, Kirkwood’s ability to create scoring opportunities from near and far exposed the Tigers’ defensive issues. If he wanted Princeton to stay in this game, coach Mitch Henderson knew he would have to find a way to slow down Kirkwood.
When the teams took the floor for the second period, Henderson’s primary adjustment was immediately apparent. Tosan Evbuomwan was not in any foul trouble, and he is easily the best defender on the squad. Henderson assigned him to Kirkwood, a move one would later characterize as genius.
Harvard seized the early initiative, extending the lead to 42-36 on a pair of Kale Catchings baskets. But the Tigers’ three-point bombardment continued, putting the Tigers in command, 49-44. Amaker took Kirkwood out of the game for a brief rest. Henderson countered by subbing Barnes in for Evbuomwan.
After a Denham Wojcik three-pointer tied the score at 49, two Llewellyn free throws and a Wright three-pointer gave the Tigers a 54-49 lead. Another Friberg three and a Evbuomwan dunk made the score Princeton 59, Harvard – still hanging tough – 55.
Harvard made a brief run, spurred by a Luka Sakota three, to jump into the lead again at 60-59. Llewellyn answered with another three-pointer of his own. His performance on this evening was reminiscent of another Senior Night explosion against the Crimson when Steven Cook poured in 30 in 2017.
With 4:23 left to play and the Tigers leading by three, Llewellyn attempted another three-pointer. He missed but was fouled in the act of shooting. Llewellyn calmly canned all three free throws to give his club a six-point lead, 69-63. The Tigers had a lead they would not relinquish.
A Kirkwood bucket brought Harvard within four, 71-67, but they would not score again. Evbuomwan made one of two free throws and Llewellyn added a layup to cap the scoring. The Tigers had earned a very big win, 74-67.
Llewellyn had the breakout game Henderson has predicted. The senior from Canada said goodbye with a season-high 29 points on 10-for-18 shooting from the field, including 4-for-9 from deep, adding a team-high six rebounds and five assists. Ethan Wright made three triples, scoring 15. Drew Friberg’s four treys were critical in the victory.
Evbuomwan’s box score highlights were eight points and five more assists. What does not show up on the stat sheet was the way he shut down Kirkwood in the second half. The All-Ivy candidate was not a factor in the final 20 minutes. Deprived of its go-to guy, Harvard floundered on offense. The Tigers held them to 29 in the second period, a very respectable showing. Evbuomwan’s defensive effort was as much a factor in the win as the 14 threes scored by the Tigers.
The obvious difference in the game was the 24-point margin enjoyed by the Tigers from beyond the arc.
Harvard’s tournament eligibility remains up in the air. A lot depends upon the outcome of Saturday’s Yale-Cornell contest. Harvard (13-11, 5-7 Ivy) has another shot at Princeton (20-5, 10-2) on Sunday afternoon at Lavietes Pavilion with perhaps a tournament berth on the line. The noon start will be broadcast on ESPN+.