The men’s basketball team defeated George Mason 71-66 Tuesday night at Jadwin Gym in a rollercoaster ride of a game.
Princeton (4-1) dominated the first half, ending it on an 11-1 run in the last 2:24 to take a 40-23 lead into the locker room. But George Mason (4-2) clawed back in the second half with its aggressive style of play, tying the game at 66 with 1:21 left. Head coach Mitch Henderson '98 took a timeout to draw up a play, which led to senior guard T.J. Bray finding sophomore forward Hans Brase open in the paint for an easy bucket. After the Patriots failed to convert on their possession, Bray milked the shot clock down to its final seconds before driving to his weaker right side and banking a shot in off the glass. Senior guard Jimmy Sherburne came up with a loose ball on the ensuing George Mason possession and the game was all but over as he hit one of two free throws at the other end to seal the deal.
“Not a real pretty finish for us, but I’ve always said it’s very difficult to come back and win,” Henderson said. “It was a little stressful, but I’m really happy for our guys, in particular [Bray]. He has a line that I would’ve dreamed to have had as a player. I always wanted to have lots of assists and no turnovers.”
Bray, the captain, led the way for the Tigers with team highs in points, with 18, assists with 10, and rebounds, with six. 10 assists are the most by a Princeton player versus a Division I opponent since Kit Mueller ’91 dished out 11 against Brown in 1991.
Bray missed the team’s first three games after injuring his left arm in an early season practice, but he appears not to have missed a beat. In his first two starts against respectable opponents Bray has averaged seven assists per game, putting imself on pace to break the Princeton record for assists in a season (161) and a career (413), both held by William F. Ryan ’84.
“It was obviously one of my better games as a player here, but my teammates were great too," Bray said. "They were knocking down shots, which makes my job easy. I know if I throw it to them, they’re going to make a good play."
Indeed, three other Tigers ended up with double digit points, led by 14 from junior guard Ben Hazel. Hazel has emerged as an outside threat, leading the team in three pointers with 11 and in three point field goal percentage at 45.8%. There are currently five Tigers averaging double digits per game, spearheading a high-powered offense that averages 71.2 points per game. This is the highest scoring average in the first five games for a Princeton team since 1971, when the team averaged 82.6 points per game. That team set Princeton’s scoring record at 79.74 points per game in a season that saw the Tigers defeat No. 2 North Carolina, the highest-ranked squad Princeton has ever defeated.
George Mason forced the Tigers to play a different game through its constant full-court press and man-to-man defense. Princeton attempted just 17 threes and made just six, recording season lows in both categories. But the Tigers adapted well, shooting a season-high 79 percent inside the arc.
The major difference between the halves was the way George Mason asserted itself on both ends of the floor. The Patriots drove the ball harder and more frequently, drawing 16 fouls in the second half and reaching the double bonus in barely 10 minutes, much to the chagrin of the home crowd. They also clamped down on rebounding, grabbing 91.7% of all possible defensive rebounds in the second half, compared to 77.7% in the first half. After pretty dreadful shooting all over the court in the first half, George Mason converted 60.9% of its field goals and 76.5% of its free throws in the latter half. The Patriots took better care of the ball in the second half, winning the turnover battle 8-4 after getting beaten 10-7 over the first 20 minutes.
“I’m never comfortable with a lead, and I knew they would start coming at us. They just started going to the rim and I think that the way the games are being called now you’ve got to be prepared for that,” Henderson said. “I really liked that we maintained some aggressiveness, including a couple huge stops at the end there.”
In the end, Princeton’s composure won out despite the disappearance of its 13-point lead in nine minutes. The team is now 4-1 overall, its best record through five games since 2006. Should the Tigers beat 3-3 Bucknell, as they have two of the last three years, they would have their best record through six games since the 1997-78 team, which Henderson captained, went 6-0 and ended up 27-2 and undefeated in the Ivy League.