Princeton men’s basketball survives after another second-half collapse

Despite another stupefying second-half collapse, the Princeton men’s basketball team somehow hung on to defeat the Harvard Crimson at Lavietes Pavilion Saturday, 58-56.  With the win, the Tigers retained a share of first place in the conference standings and guaranteed themselves an opportunity to earn at least a share of the Ivy League title with a win on senior night at Jadwin Gym next Saturday against the Penn Quakers in the regular season finale for both teams.

The Tigers gutted out this hugely important road win despite a harrowing stretch of offensive futility that echoed Princeton’s epic second-half collapse against Yale last weekend.  

Senior guard Ryan Langborg led the Tigers with 18 points and six rebounds while Evan Nelson led Harvard in scoring with 19 points in a losing cause. Chris Ledlum, playing his final game at Lavietes, was held to 14 points (five below his average), but muscled his way to a game-high 11 rebounds for the Crimson, who were eliminated from Ivy Madness on Senior Night by Princeton for the second year in a row.

But the story of the day was Princeton’s deja-vu second-half meltdown.  If there were such a thing as a bad win in the Ivy League (there isn’t), this would be it.  

As was the case a week ago against Yale, the Tigers came out strong early in the game, staking themselves to a healthy, 14-point lead at halftime, 37-23.  The Tigers did a terrific job in the first half of containing Ledlum, who had bled the Tigers for 22 points in the first matchup of these teams way back on New Year’s Eve. In the rematch yesterday, Ledlum often faced double teams, and in response, he tried too hard at times to force up errant shots.  

All of that changed in the second half, as Ledlum, the second-leading scorer in the conference and a shoo-in for the All-Ivy first team, took over the game starting at about the 16-minute mark.  By that time, the Tigers had built a hefty 19-point lead and seemed to be in position to coast to victory.  Stop me if you’ve heard this before.  

The Harvard comeback began with Ledlum converting one of two free throws after an Evan Nelson offensive rebound, one of fourteen on the day for the Crimson. Ledlum then cashed in a Tigers turnover with a layup to reduce the margin to 16. A pair of Ledlum defensive rebounds led to more points for the Crimson, and when Evan Nelson canned a three-pointer off a Ledlum assist, the Crimson suddenly had hope.  

Still leading by 13, Xaivian Lee, who had provided a spark for the Tigers off the bench in the first half, launched an ill-advised three, which was rebounded by, you guessed it, Chris Ledlum.  The senior forward fed Idan Tretout for a transition layup, shaving the lead to 11. Mitch Henderson called a timeout to stop the bleeding.  

Coming out of the timeout, Princeton figured to work the ball into Tosan Evbuomwan, who had had a relatively quiet day to that point.  The reigning Ivy Player of the Year found Ryan Langborg, who cut to the hoop and hit a gorgeous reverse layup to restore order to the proceedings.  

But Harvard would not relent.  The Crimson responded immediately with a Nelson three-pointer to cut Princeton’s lead to 10, 49-39, with 12:42 to play, an eternity.  After a series of empty Princeton possessions, Nelson hit another three to make it a seven-point game.  

Princeton’s offense remained stagnant as Harvard slowly continued to chip away at the visitors’ lead.  A Ledlum layup at the 8:26 mark brought Harvard within five.  Then, after neither team could make a shot for several minutes, Nelson converted a layup to make it a single-possession game, 51-49, with just over five minutes to go.  

With the Harvard comeback all but complete, the Tigers were staring into the abyss for the second week in a row.  Somehow, the Tigers managed to flip the script in the closing minutes.  

With a sold-out home crowd urging the Crimson to finish off the wounded Tigers, Lee came to the rescue.  The audacious freshman got an awkward floater from just under the bucket to go in despite heavy contact and no help from the referees.  It was the last field goal of the game for Princeton, who led 53-49 with 4:42 to go in the game.  

To that point, the Tigers had not been awarded a single trip to the free-throw line compared to 16 free throw attempts awarded to Harvard.  It was a galling disparity that spoke to Princeton’s lack of aggression for much of the game and some questionable judgment by the often-maligned Ivy League officiating crew.

The foul shooting disparity would get worse.  A foul by Lee led to two Tretout free throws to make it 53-51 with 2:29 to go.  Harvard coach Tommy Amaker called a timeout to set up Harvard’s defense.  

The timeout also allowed Mitch Henderson to settle his team and devise a play.  Despite near total futility for the past 15 minutes of game time, the Tigers needed just one good possession to retake control of the contest.  They couldn’t get it as the Tigers bled the shot clock until it turned zero with no shot attempt.  

Then, in what may have been the play of the game, Chris Ledlum missed a bunny that would have tied the game.  To my eyes, it looked like there was contact underneath the basket, but in a striking departure, the referees failed to award foul shots to Harvard and Evbuomwan came down with the rebound.  

With yet another chance to put a head lock on victory, the Tigers failed to convert again as Matt Allocco forced up an off-balance shot after once again running down the shot clock.  

With 1:04 to go, Amaker called his final timeout.  Surely the Crimson would get the ball to Ledlum for its most important possession of the game if not the season.  Instead, Chandler Piggé launched an errant three, and despite yet another Ledlum offensive rebound, the Crimson could not equalize as Nelson missed a jumper with 31 ticks left on the clock.  

From there, Harvard was forced to foul and Princeton finally found its way to the free throw line with a chance to close out the contest.  Five conversions on six free throw attempts, including two big makes by Ryan Langborg, sealed the deal and the Tigers avoided catastrophe, barely.  An inconsequential Nelson three at the buzzer provided the final points of the game as Princeton prevailed, 58-56.  

With the win, the Tigers concluded their road schedule with a 4-3 record in league play.  It was also Princeton’s fourth straight win over Harvard, which has to feel satisfying given that just a few years ago, the Crimson had established itself as Princeton’s chief rival.  

But the chronic second-half collapses have to concern Mitch Henderson as he now turns his attention to preparing his squad for the epic regular season finale against Penn next Saturday at Jadwin Gym.  

A week ago, Princeton allowed a shorthanded Yale squad to outscore the Tigers by an astounding margin of 49-20 over the final eight minutes of regulation and five minutes of overtime. Saturday, the Tigers allowed a very poor shooting Harvard team to muscle its way back into the game by out-scoring Princeton by 18 points over a critical 15-minute stretch.

This pattern has haunted the Tigers all year.  In six of Princeton’s eight losses this season (and all four of Princeton’s conference losses), the Tigers have led at halftime.  Perplexingly, Princeton has also turned first-half deficits into successful comebacks, winning five games in which it has trailed at halftime.  

How does one explain this see-saw saga? It’s all about effort and aggression. The Tigers have shown they know how to defend with intensity, rebound the ball, slice through the lane for layups, and muscle their way into the paint for layups and dunks. What they haven’t been able to do is play the role of aggressor for forty consecutive minutes. Perhaps this is the inevitable price a team pays for relying so heavily on working the ball for open three-point shots.  

This lack of consistency bodes poorly for the Tigers as they head into the final two weekends of Ivy League games.  To accomplish their goal of winning both the regular season and Ivy Madness titles, the Tigers will need to win three consecutive games against top level opponents, something they haven’t accomplished yet this season.  

The good news for Mitch Henderson and his Princeton squad is that they still have time to figure it out and all of their remaining games will be played in the friendly confines of Jadwin Gym.  

Buckle up, Princeton Nation.  An exciting conclusion to the season is arriving soon.