Hopefully the Princeton fans and players like to dance, because the Tigers just punched their ticket to the biggest one in the nation.
Princeton defeated Yale by a score of 71-59 in the inaugural Ivy League tournament game, behind an energetic crowd filled with a majority of fans clad in the iconic black and orange. The Tiger players and fans alike celebrated the win as the clocked ticked to zero, storming the court and shooting off confetti as Princeton punched their ticket to their first NCAA tournament since 2011.
“We’re so happy,” Coach Mitch Henderson said after the game. “I don’t have a lot of words. I’m so proud of the team. I’m so happy to be their coach and I’m thrilled to be representing the Ivy League in the NCAA tournament."
It wasn’t a picture perfect game for the Tigers by any means. Princeton started off slow on offense as the Yale defense forced plenty of early turnovers and airballs. After senior Steven Cook’s turnaround jumper in the first 15 seconds, the Tigers would wait nearly four minutes to score their next field goal – a tip in by freshman Will Gladson at the 15:36 mark.
But the Tigers knew, as they have all season, that their defense would always keep them in games. “As a team we never think we are going to be out of it," Stephen Cook agreed. Having had one of the top defenses in the Ivy League all season, the Tigers put that on display here, preventing Yale from getting any sustained success on offense. Highlighted by Cook’s emphatic dunk on an attempted Yale lay-up, the defense held serve until the offense found their rhythm and took this game over.
The offense found its rhythm at the 11:40 mark when junior Amir Bell connected on a mid-range jumper to end another scoreless drought. The Tigers followed this up with a three-pointer by Cook to give the Tigers a 14-11 lead. A few minutes later, Cook would strike again, elevating high to slam the ball in and force a foul, sending the crowd into a frenzy. Yale would strike back, taking a 26-24 lead late in the first half, but Princeton would right the ship and reclaim the lead heading into halftime up 31-29.
In the second half, the Tigers smelled blood in the water and relentlessly attacked the Bulldogs. What ensued in the second half was a three-point clinic by the Princeton offense. A corner three from Cook put the Tigers up six at the 17:41 mark and forced Yale into a timeout. Sophomore Devin Cannady would later connect with his own three from NBA range. Sophomore Myles Stephens had a three-point play of his own, driving to the basket and generating the foul on a nice layup. Gladson would add another three at the 8:05 mark, putting the Tigers up 58-45. Yale would have one final run in them midway through the second half, but a deep three by Stephens put him over 20 points for the game and took the life out of the Bulldogs.
“It’s definitely a special moment for me," Stephens said. “Growing up in high school, I was around the program a lot, I went to all of the home games in high school, so it's special to me, but at the beginning of the year Coach said, ‘Let’s get a banner for our seniors' and we did just that."
“This is really special, and I’m so appreciative of what these guys have done," Henderson said.
The Tigers overcame some serious foul trouble throughout the game. Bell picked up two fouls earlier in the game and Cook picked up four overal in the game. Yale was in the bonus early and often but could not find the bottom of the basket, converting less than 70 percent of their free throws. On the other hand, Princeton wrapped up this game making their free throws and by the final minute were receiving endless standing ovations from the crowd.
"The way we are playing right now, I think it’s hard to stop us," Stephen Weisz commented.
Despite a valiant effort from Yale’s Sam Downey, the star of this game is Princeton's Stephens. The Princeton star showed why he was the defensive Player of the Year for the Ivy League and finished with 23 points, showing his offensive prowess as well. Complimenting him on the scoreboard were Cook and Cannady, who both had double-digit points. But make no mistake, this was a team effort like it has been all season, and as a team this team will celebrate.
The Tigers overcame a slow start and roared their way to a decisive Ivy League tournament title. They will indeed be dancing – we will find out where and against whom later tonight.
Congratulations to Yale on an incredible season of their own right. But this day has – and forever will – belong to the Princeton Tigers. A wire-to-wire conference season and the second-longest winning streak in the NCAA – it doesn’t get any better than this.