Men's Basketball: Princeton on doorstep of Big Dance
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Following victories against Cornell and Columbia last weekend to finish off an undefeated 12-0 season at Jadwin Gymnasium, the men’s basketball team found itself in sole possession of first place honors atop the Ivy League. With a three-game road trip left to close out the season, Princeton (22-5 overall, 10-1 Ivy League) is firmly in control of its postseason destiny, looking for its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2004. It would also be the Tigers’ first appearance in the tournament during the tenure of head coach Sydney Johnson ’97.
Princeton’s victory against Cornell (8-18, 4-8) last week came fairly easily; the Big Red hung tight at the end of the first half, where the Tigers led by a mere four points, 41-37. After the half, though, the Tigers raced in front of Cornell, leading with a 65.4 field-goal shooting percentage and a 5-9 mark from three-point range.
Saturday’s effort against Columbia (14-12, 5-7), proved more difficult. Columbia, a team that Princeton had defeated by 30 points just several weeks ago — 76-46 on Feb. 11 at Levien Gymnasium in New York City — played tight defense on the Tigers in the first half, highlighted by several first-half steals from Columbia sophomore Brian Barbour, and held Princeton to a 31.8 percent mark from the field. Columbia ended the half up by one point, but Princeton’s seniors did not relinquish their undefeated record at Jadwin on Senior Night. Led by senior forward and tri-captain Kareem Maddox’s team-high 20 points and fellow senior guard and captain Dan Mavraides’ strong defensive effort and clutch shooting at the end of the game (two key steals and two timely three-pointers in the final minutes), the Tigers came down from a six point deficit with seven minutes and 47 seconds remaining to defeat the Lions 66-61.
The team’s road trip takes them to Dartmouth, Harvard and Penn to close out the season. Princeton defeated all three of these teams in the friendly confines of Carril Court in Jadwin. Dartmouth (5-21, 1-11) ranks at the bottom of the Ivy League this year. Since Johnson took over in April 2007, the Tigers have had a 5-2 head-to-head record against the Big Green, who currently find themselves mired in a nine-game losing streak and a 1-14 run over the last 15 games, having just surrendered 100 points to Brown in their loss last Saturday.
The day after facing Dartmouth, the Tigers will face Harvard (21-5, 10-2), who currently trails Princeton in the Ivy League standings by a game in the loss column. In the last three years, Princeton has gone a perfect 5-0 against the Crimson, yet all of the games were won by six or fewer points, an indication of the highly competitive level of play between the two teams. If Saturday’s matchup (which will be televised online at ESPN3.com) holds any remnants of history between the two rivals, the game will be hotly contested throughout, especially in light of Harvard’s one-point loss to Yale last weekend, 70-69 at New Haven, that ceded control of first place to Princeton.
With the games remaining on the schedule, the team faces an exciting challenge: If the Tigers win the rest of the schedule, they will ensure their first postseason berth in the NCAA tournament since 2004.
Johnson remarked on the importance of the opportunity.
“Clearly we know what the stakes are, but now we have to go out and do it,” Johnson said. “The players and coaches, we have to try to perform our best, and we can only do that if we are in the moment.”
“Rather than think about the implications, we have to stay focused on the moment,” Johnson added. “If we do anything less than that, I don’t think we play well, and if we don’t play well, we’re going to lose. I’m focused on our team being prepared for a very tough game on Friday, and as soon as that game finishes a really tough game on Saturday.”
Johnson commented on the upcoming games at Dartmouth and Harvard this weekend. “I just want our team to be up and ready, for game by game, and at our best with our turnovers, and we might have a chance on Friday,” Johnson said.