Princeton’s overtime victory over Penn this afternoon in the semifinal of the inaugural Ivy League Men’s Basketball Tournament serves as an excellent example of why so many argued for an Ivy League tournament in the first place. Despite never holding a lead in regulation, the Tigers mounted an incredible comeback in a thrilling game to secure a 72-64 win. Coach Mitch Henderson ’98 agrees. “I thought it was a terrific basketball game,” he said.
The matchup contained the combined intensity of a fierce rivalry and a critical postseason matchup. Playing at the Palestra, their home arena, Penn was better represented in the stands, but Princeton’s student section compensated for the difference with their boisterous energy. For Henderson, who participated in several heated Princeton-Penn matchups during his playing career in the 90s, the dynamic was familiar. “I’ve probably got more issues with Penn than these guys,” joked Henderson.
Facing a hostile crowd, Princeton struggled to find its offensive rhythm in the first half. The Tigers trailed for the entirety of the first half and failed to generate their trademark perimeter offense, shooting a mere 3-8 from behind the arc. Penn, on the other hand, shot 50 percent both from the field and from 3-point range, played stout defense, and entered the second half protecting a 33-30 lead. “They came out much more aggressive than we were on offense and defense,” said Spencer Weisz, the senior forward recently named Ivy League Player of the Year.
At halftime, Henderson instructed his players to clamp down on defense and focus on driving the basketball to the rim. "Coach (Henderson) said at halftime, ‘keep them under 60 and you’ll win,'” said Weisz. Sophomore Myles Stephens, Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year, added “The game plan was to get to the rim in the second half.”
Myles Stephens opened the second half with a basket to cut the deficit to one, but Princeton’s shooting went cold shortly thereafter, with four consecutive missed threes. Four minutes into the second half, Penn had opened the lead to 44-34, and Princeton was forced to call a time out as the crowd roared.
Princeton would quickly respond with a 7-0 run of its own, punctuated by a Myles Stephens transition dunk off an Amir Bell block followed by a Spencer Weisz 3-pointer to bring the score to 44-41.
As the intensity of the game increased, tempers began to flare and Princeton continued to crawl back into the game. Finally, Princeton tied the game for the first time since 0-0 at 49 apiece on an Amir Bell 3-pointer, with 8 minutes remaining. Princeton, playing its small ball lineup with all 5 players under 6’6, struggled to contain 6’8 Penn Forward AJ Brodeur, but traded baskets with Penn to bring the score to 57-57 with 2 minutes remaining.
Justin Howard then hit a floater to bring the score to 59-57 Penn, where the score stood with under 20 seconds left. However, Howard missed the front end of a one-and-one, giving Princeton one more chance to tie the game. The Tigers capitalized immediately – Myles Stephens tipped in an Amir Bell miss to tie the score and send the game to overtime after Penn missed a three pointer as the clock expired.
In OT, Princeton showcased the dominance that carried it through Ivy League conference play unbeaten. Myles Stephens hit two consecutive shots to give Princeton its first lead of the game at 63-59, securing a lead that Princeton would not give up. After a series of free throws, the score ended at 72-64 in favor of Princeton.
Statistically, the Tigers were led by Devin Cannady, who scored 12 points and shot a perfect 10-10 from the free throw line; Amir Bell, who scored 16 on an efficient 6-9 shooting; and Stephens, who posted a double-double with 21 points in 10 rebounds. Despite his massive contribution, Stephens remained modest. Regarding his game-tying tip-in, he said, “I thought it might come off (the rim); right place, right time, I guess."Rregarding his critical buckets to open the overtime period, “Our defense stepped up in overtime. I tried to come out aggressive, and my teammates found me in places I could score," he said."
Princeton, which advanced to 15-0 in Ivy League play this season, still has business to take care of at the Palestra. The Tigers advance to take on the winner of this afternoon’s Harvard-Yale matchup tomorrow, with the Ivy League’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament on the line.
One game in, Princeton seems satisfied with the new concept of the Ivy League Tournament. “You live for moments like this. As a senior, getting to experience this once was phenomenal,” said Weisz. “I think it’s really good for the league,” added Henderson. “I hope that I’d be saying the same thing if we lost.”