The men’s basketball team suffered another crushing defeat Friday night against Columbia before rebounding to smother Cornell Saturday in the first pair of conference matchups at home. Princeton (13-6 overall, 1-4 Ivy League) fell 53-52 to the Lions (14-9, 3-3) after a couple of controversial calls in the final minute went against the Tigers. The next night saw Princeton play its best defense of the season, stymieing the Big Red (1-19, 0-6) in a 69-48 win, the first against a Division I opponent this calendar year.
“It was a heck of a game by Columbia — I don’t think the game came down to those final two plays, we sort of forced it,” said coach Mitch Henderson ’98. “Once again, we’re putting ourselves in some really difficult spots. We’ve got to figure out how to win games. We’re not executing and we had some really costly turnovers.”
Princeton dominated the first half against Columbia, outshooting the Lions 57.1 percent to 33.3 percent overall and holding a team that averages 7.5 three pointers a game to just one. But, just as in the Harvard game, the Tigers were dominated on the boards, allowing seven offensive rebounds to a team that ranks among the bottom-fifty in the NCAA. Princeton collected just one, meaning Columbia attempted six more shots in the first half, a crippling margin. The eight-point difference at halftime seemed to be a huge understatement.
Princeton, as usual, went cold to start the half. They made two of eight to open the half and the deficit was erased in barely five minutes as Columbia’s Alex Rosenberg scored four points and assisted two other buckets to leave it knotted at 37. The teams stayed within three points of each other until senior guard T.J. Bray made a huge layup despite some contact to put Princeton up 52-47 with two minutes to play. Columbia then ate up the entire shot clock, as they often do, before sophomore Isaac Cohen knocked down his only three of the game off the front of the forgiving Jadwin Gymansium rim.
A missed three from Bray put the ball back in Columbia’s hands with less than a minute left. Second leading scorer Maodo Lo missed an open look at the top of the key and senior guard Chris Clement rebounded. Rosenberg stuck his hands in for the briefest of moments before Clement ripped the ball away, but it was enough for the official to call for a jump ball. Henderson and the the Jadwin crowd were in disbelief. After a timeout, Columbia ran a well-designed play that freed up guard Meiko Lyles outside the three point line. He caught it, shot it and got it for his only points of the game.
Bray tried to back down his his defender on the ensuing possession but got stuffed and the ball rolled out of bounds. With 11 seconds left, Princeton inbounded and worked the ball over to senior guard Ben Hazel, who had played a very quiet role up to that point. He drove and put up a feeble airball, suggesting there had been some contact. The referees ate their whistles, though, and Columbia locked up its first win at Jadwin gym since 1993.
“We wanted to go to T.J. on the last play, but Hans went the other way and we ended up getting a shot from Ben Hazel, which wasn’t a good shot for us,” said Henderson.
Princeton still ended up shooting better than Columbia, 44.4 percent to 40.4 percent, but were outrebounded and recorded their fewest assists of the season. Bray led the Tigers with 17 points on seven-of-12 shooting, while Brase added 13, all in the first half, and seven boards. Rosenberg dropped a game-high 19, despite shooting just 33.3 percent, and contributed four steals. Princeton scored its fewest points of the season by 13, but played its second-best defensive game.
The game against Cornell provided a nice rebound for a Princeton team that has clearly had a tough 2014. The Big Red is one of the worst Division I teams this year, and the Tigers certainly made it seem that way. After a slow first ten minutes, Princeton went on a 22-7 tear to go into the break up 37-21. The game was never in question as Princeton led by as many as 25 points and coasted. Henderson, who has been searching for the right combination of players, mixed and matched his personnel. Freshman forward Steven Cook started his third straight game and played a game high 33 minutes while scoring a career high 13 points. Meanwhile, former starter Hazel saw just three minutes of court time, as Henderson gave Clement 20 minutes a game off the bench.
The starting lineup included four forwards, which may have helped Princeton to its best rebounding performance in quite some time, with a 33-27 edge over Cornell. Most impressive was Princeton’s defense, which held the Big Red to 34.1 percent shooting and forced 16 turnovers. Offensively, the Tigers shot quite well, making 24 of 49 attempted. Their 11-of-28 performance from beyond the arc was the best rate and quantity against a division one opponent since the drubbing of Pacific way back in December. Freshman forward Spencer Weisz scored a game- and career-high 18 points on six-of-seven shooting, as his top-three scoring games have now come against Princeton’s three worst opponents. Bray added his usual 17 to go with a game-high six assists and five rebounds. Cornell’s leading scorer, Nolan Cressler led them with 14 points and forward David Onurah pulled in a game-high seven boards.
“We did a nice job having a short-term memory,” Henderson said, referencing the previous night’s game. “It’s amazing what a couple of shots falling does for a team’s soul. I feel like we got our groove back a little bit and we’ll need to keep it going.”
Perhaps the most important news of the night came from Cambridge, where Yale upset Harvard 74-67. It might be too late to make up 3.5 games on those two teams, but this result at least proves that Harvard is fallible and the league is more wide open than people might think. Despite the obviously costly loss to Columbia, Princeton’s chances of winning the league remain roughly constant from last week at .6 percent, according to TeamRankings.com. In a few days, the Tigers hit the road to face Brown and Yale, two of the league’s top three teams, in a weekend that could either throw Princeton back in the hunt or eliminate them completely.