Princeton saved its worst for last in a season-ending loss at Fresno State Monday night. The last 10 minutes saw the Tigers (21-9 overall, 8-6 Ivy League) make just three baskets on 16 tries, commit seven fouls, cough up five turnovers, allow 62.5 percent shooting and ultimately throw away their season. The final score was 72-56, the largest margin of defeat during the season. Yet, Princeton trailed by just one at 45-44 with 11:50 left.
The first half was mostly a trainwreck for the Tigers, who couldn’t seem to find any rhythm on offense. After taking a brief 7-5 lead, they let Fresno State (19-16 overall, 8-8 Mountain West) go on a 22-9 run during which the Bulldogs shot over 50 percent from the floor and held the Tigers to under 30 percent. Not much went Princeton’s way, from a near turnover turned 30-foot three pointer for guard Cezar Guerrero to missed fastbreak opportunities and costly turnovers. Only senior guard and captain T.J. Bray’s last-second three kept the lead in single digits (33-25) going into the break. Bray was the only Tiger to shoot above 33 percent in the first half, scoring 12 points on 5-9 shooting. Princeton shot just 3-15 from beyond the arc, including a shocking 1-13 in between opening and closing treys from Bray.
The first two minutes of the second half represented the longest stretch of impressive play for Princeton in the entire game. Head coach Mitch Henderson ’98 must have lit a fire of some sort during the break because the Tigers came out with a noticeable change in intensity. They made four straight shots and rattled off a 9-0 run to take a 34-33 lead. The magic quickly wore off as Princeton reverted back to sloppy play. To their credit, the Tigers hung around for a while before succumbing to the worst stretch of basketball they have played all year.
The game is most perfectly symbolized by a period of 90 seconds played when only four minutes remained. Princeton had cut the lead to eight (62-54) before three timeouts were called in rapid succession. The Bulldogs hit a pair of free throws to widen the lead to 10. Bray missed a jumper, but the Tigers rebounded. He then missed a layup, and Brase rebounded. He then missed the third and final shot of the possession. Guerrero drove uncontested for an easy two on the other end. At this point, it was clear Princeton was done. But senior guard Jimmy Sherburne added to the shambles with a missed layup of his own and failed putback, which, seemingly of course, led to a Fresno State layup. This period for the Tigers was characterized by missed shots, poor defense and a demoralizing Fresno State run.
Princeton ended up shooting 31.7 percent for the game, its worst rate of the season. The Tigers decided to throw up 30 threes, their most since February 1, but converted just eight of them. Fresno State, meanwhile, shot 47.5 percent overall and 46.2 percent from downtown. Brase put up 15 of his 19 points in the second half and completed his first double double in four months with 10 rebounds. Bray, in his last game as a Tiger, scored 17 points but had to take 15 shots to get there, sinking just six of them. He pulled in six rebounds and had four assists. Still, he did not provide his usual level of clutch performance, missing his last six field goal attempts. Fresno State guard Tyler Johnson made his presence known all over the court, scoring 23 points, pulling in eight rebounds, dishing out four dimes and even stealing the ball twice.
The players and coaches will likely look back on this season and wonder what could have been. Preseason expectations were somewhat low: The team had lost its best player in 2013 Ivy League Player of the Year Ian Hummer ’13. Yet the Tigers charged out of the gates with Bray filling Hummer’s role and then some. Princeton looked like a team of destiny when it completed a miraculous 18-point comeback in five minutes en route to an 81-79 overtime win at Penn State. Six days later, they completed an eight-game win streak with the season’s most dominating performance, an 83-58 trouncing of Pacific in Las Vegas on Dec. 20. The Tigers sat at 9-1, one of the best starts in program history, and looked like a team that could compete with Harvard for the league title.
But, just like a runner who makes his move too early, the Tigers began to fade. They began a six-week stretch of sloppy play that left them 12-6 overall and 0-4 in conference. Three of those conference losses came in games where Princeton was favored by at least seven points. Worse was the fact that they had a chance to win each game, yet failed to close as they had already done several times in non-conference play. If only the Penn State comeback points could have been saved and redistributed among these games.
Henderson started using a different, younger lineup against Dartmouth and the team played a much different style. The Harvard and Penn games yielded over 150 points apiece, but the Dartmouth and Columbia games totaled 126 and 105 points, respectively. Still, the outcomes were the same. Princeton improved over the next few games but was still far from the team it had been in December. On Feb. 22, Harvard made its biannual visit to Jadwin Gymnasium, where it had not won in a quarter-century. The Tigers held an early lead and fought valiantly throughout but simply could not score down the stretch and lost, 59-47. Their league record was 3-6, above only Dartmouth and Cornell in the standings.
But then a funny thing happened. Princeton started dominating teams like it had a few months before. The Tigers rattled off five straight wins in 11 days to end the conference schedule, including double-digit victories over strong Yale and Columbia squads. They ended up tied with the Lions for third place in the league and a strong candidate for postseason play. A CBI bid followed and Princeton won its first postseason game in two years against Tulane.
Despite the unfortunate conference record and ending to the season, these Tigers have plenty to be proud of. Twenty-one wins is the highest total in three years and exceeded expectations by a decent margin. Bray had one of the best individual seasons in Princeton history and was a unanimous first team All-Ivy selection. Freshman guard Spencer Weisz garnered Rookie of the Year honors. The program has a lot to look forward to despite the departure of seniors like Bray, Sherburne, forward Will Barrett and guard Chris Clement. Brase, the leading rebounder, is back, as is junior forward Denton Koon, a 2013 honorable mention All-Ivy player whose season was cut short by injury. Freshman forward Steven Cook and junior guard Clay Wilson both had four games in double digits and were huge contributors down the stretch.