The Princeton Tigers clinched a share of the Ivy League championship with a heart-stopping 74-73 victory over the Harvard Crimson at Lavietes Pavilion Sunday afternoon. The title is the second in coach Mitch Henderson’s career following the undefeated Ivy season in 2017.
Harvard grabbed the late lead 73-72 with 17 seconds remaining. Princeton chose to play it out without calling a timeout. Harvard, with fouls to give, gave one with nine ticks on the clock. The inbounds pass found Tosan Evbuomwan at the top of the key, guarded by Harvard big man Mason Forbes. Evbuomwan wasted little time taking Forbes to his left and maneuvering to the hoop to cash in the game-winner with 4.8 seconds to go, points 17 and 18 for the Ivy Player of the Year candidate. A desperation long-range bomb by the Crimson was wide of the mark as time expired.
Each side had heroes in a game that could have gone either way. Once again, the Tigers’ proficiency from behind the three-point line spelled the difference in a well-played game by these bitter rivals. Princeton was 11-for-26 (42%) while the Crimson made eight of 25 attempts (32%). Four players counted double figures for the home club: Luka Sakota (14), Evan Nelson (14), Noah Kirkwood (12), and Kale Catchings (11). Joining Evbuomwan was Jaelin Llewellyn (16) and Ethan Wright (11). An unsung hero for Princeton was Elijah Barnes, who has lately given Henderson an option at the five position for Evbuomwan. In nine minutes Sunday, Barnes contributed eight points and four rebounds, including a late-in-the-clock three-pointer in a big moment. Henderson got 28 points from the five spot this afternoon.
Neither team could establish any momentum early. Llewellyn and Evbuomwan combined for 17 first-half points, while Evan Nelson had a career half counting 12 points in the first stanza. Seven minutes in the Tigers were up 15-9 when Barnes found himself all alone for a drive to the bucket. He had an “and one” chance but missed from the charity stripe. When Llewellyn found Wright on a fastbreak layup, the Tigers went up 26-18 with less than six minutes remaining. Two minutes later, a Nelson mid-range jumper brought the home club within two at 28-26. At the break, the Tigers held a two-point margin, 34-32.
Six minutes into the second period a Llewellyn three gave the Tigers what seemed like a comfortable eight-point margin, 51-43. But comfortable it was not. Harvard proceeded to make the run the big crowd expected. The Crimson held the Tigers scoreless for the next four minutes. In that stretch, Harvard scored 13 unanswered points to take a 56-51 lead with 9:28 to go. This was the first real momentum shift in the ball game. Fortunately for Princeton, there was plenty of time remaining.
As they have done so often this year, the Tigers turned to their seniors to stop the Harvard charge. Three pointers by Drew Friberg and Ethan Wright got the right back in the game. The it was an Evbuomwan bucket in close that restored the Tiger lead, 59-58. Kale Catchings answered with a gorgeous long-range bomb at the 5:57 mark: Harvard 61, Princeton 59.
Matt Allocco then entered the game in place of Wright. Naturally, he hit a three to grab the lead back, 62-61, 5:35 to go. Sakota was having none of it. His three put the home team up, 64-62. Sakota was fouled on the shot and turned it into a four-point play, Harvard up, 65-62.
The relentless three-point machine struck back for Princeton. This time it was Ryan Langborg. Game tied. Sakota and Llewellyn traded layups. A Mason Forbes layup gave Harvard the edge, 69-67. Friberg shook loose behind the arc to make another huge score. 70-69, Tigers, 2:59 to go.
After a Crimson turnover Wright got to the glass to put his club up 72-69. Nelson answered for Harvard with a mid-range two. Both teams felt the heat as the clock wound down. Jaelin Llewellyn inexplicably turned the ball over, by bouncing it off his leg all the way to the Harvard baseline.
Sakota returned the favor with 32 seconds to go. Harvard swarmed Langborg, forcing an errant pass. Sakota was fouled and coolly canned both free throws to appear to settle the matter with 17 seconds remaining.
Not this year. Not with this team.
Tiger wins at Levietes in the Henderson era have been very few, two in fact. This win, giving the Tigers at least a share of the title and what appears to be the No. 1 seed in the Ivy League Tournament, will go down as one of the most satisfying of the Henderson era.
The Tigers travel to The Palestra to conclude the regular season on Saturday at 6 p.m. Even a Yale win over Brown coupled with a Princeton loss to Penn leaving the Tigers and Bulldogs tied atop the league at 11-3 likely wouldn’t be enough for Yale to surpass Princeton in the applicable tiebreaker of highest team average of rating indices (Sagarin, Ken Pom, BPI and NCAA Net).
The Tiger women will come to Lavietes next Sunday at noon. Their Friday contest with Harvard was postponed due to COVID-19 protocols.