In an epic game to kick of the Round of 64, the men's basketball team can hold their heads up high, knowing they fought the No. 5-seeded Irish to the wire and only just missed a potentially game-winning three-pointer in the final seconds of the game. In one of the biggest games of Princeton’s history, the Tigers gave Notre Dame everything they had and unfortunately came up just short.
The Tigers came into this game as the No. 12 seed, looking to use their perimeter attack against a Notre Dame team that played a similar style. However, it became clear in the opening minutes that this game would come down to Princeton stopping the inside pressure of the Irish. Notre Dame quickly changed their play style, transitioning from a perimeter shooting team to one that was content with — as coach Mike Brey of the Irish described — “throwing the ball down in there and seeing what happens." This created an early mismatch for the Tigers, who looked out-of-character in the beginning of the game while having to deal with a combination of Bonzie Colson down low and Matt Farrell on the perimeter. Farrell scored six points early, Colson was disruptive in the paint, and the Tigers failed to score for the first few minutes of the game, going one for six and missing their first three shots.
As Mitch Henderson notes, “We were a little impatient throughout the first half."
The rest of the first half was a back-and-forth affair, as the Tigers tried to claw their way back into the game, only to see Notre Dame pull back away. However, senior Spencer Weisz — the Ivy League’s player of the year — showed great performance throughout what became his final game in a Princeton uniform. He hit several three-pointers early on, including one that tied the game at 11 with 12:47 to go, and netted himself eight points before the halfway mark of the first half. He was a key component throughout the game and has been a critical player throughout the season, leaving his mark on this Princeton team.
A critical juncture of the game came in the midway portion of the first half. Taking a feed from Myles Stephens, Amir Bell drove it inside and made a lay-up. Princeton took the lead 17-15, and forced the Irish to call a timeout with 11:26 to go. However, just after the timeout, the Tigers failed to capitalize on the momentum, going through a six-minute scoring drought during which the Irish were able to regain the lead. The Tigers would never regain their lead.
“I think they out toughed us in the second half,” Weisz said. “They got all the loose balls, they forced turnovers, they grabbed the rebounds, and we fell behind because of it.”
Princeton would build some momentum heading into the break, based again on a three-point attack. Weisz, sophomore Devin Cannady, and senior Steven Cook each made a three-pointer, pulling the Tigers to within six points at the half. But to begin the second half, Notre Dame’s Farrell and Colson took the game back over. Farrell scored seven points in the first four minutes of the half, and an emphatic dunk by Colson put the Irish up double digits.
“We asked ourselves what we wanted to make of this game,” Weisz noted. “We brought more toughness late in the second half."
Weisz led the ferocious Tiger comeback with the other Princeton players in hot pursuit. Weisz’s reverse layup at the 11:30 mark trimmed the lead to six, and it was evident that the frustration was mounting for the Irish. Cannady converted a layup and one opportunity, Stephens had a monster slam to send the Princeton faithful into a frenzy, and the Tigers were staring at only a five-point deficit, with 5:19 to go.
“In a situation like that, you’re trying to do everything you can to claw back. At the end we started to get back to our old ways,” Cook noted.
The Tigers got a tough break at the 4:02 mark when a play that seemed like a charging foul was deemed a blocking foul. The officials reviewed it and confirmed the call, sending Steve Vasturia of the Irish to the line, where he converted both free throws. As the clocked ticked to under a minute, Princeton brought the game within one possession, after a tip-in by Pete Miller. Then madness ensued.
Princeton sent a cross-court inbounds pass to set up a Tiger with a three-pointer, with 20 seconds to play and three points to make up. While this shot missed, Miller cut through the defense and tipped it in, bringing the game to within one. The Tigers would then be forced to foul Notre Dame’s Matt Farrell, who missed his first free throw. The Tigers, needing just one point to tie the game, gave the ball to Cannady, who was set up by a screen and given an open look. Cannady took the shot, the ball careened just out, and the Tigers would put Notre Dame on the line with 0.4 seconds to go, ending their chances of a win.
Cannady said after the game, “When that ball left my hand, I thought it was good.” Many people thought the same thing ― unfortunately, it was not to be.
For the Tigers, three players scored in double digits, but the Irish defense was the star of the show, forcing the Tigers into poor shooting beyond the arc. Cook led the way with 15 points, Weisz had 11, and Stephens had 10 for the Tigers. On the other side, Farrell and Colson combined for 34 out of the 60 Irish points in the game. The Tigers' defense kept them in this game, but their impressive comeback fell just short.
However, perhaps the best moment of today came in the conference room after the game. Despite just losing after the nation’s second-longest active winning streak, despite having their season end on a missed three, and despite shooting 25 percent from deep, the Tigers had nothing but positive words for one another.
“This year has been amazing for us,” Cook said. “16 and 0 in the Ivy League, and getting the program back to the winning way. It’s been an amazing season, and I've done it with people I can call family.”
“I’m just so proud of the team we became; I couldn’t have asked for anything more,” Weisz noted. “Every year, when the brackets come out, people look at the Ivy League and see what matchup we have. It’s a testament to the league and a testament to the teams. We can compete with anyone.”
As we look ahead to next year, the Tigers will be a team to be reckoned with. They will not only return with a young core of talent, but will also have valuable experience that a team can only gain from playing in positions like this. Next year, other teams better watch out.
Today is also day to celebrate the work of the seniors who, as Coach Henderson stated, “were responsible for bringing this team back to its winning ways and back to the NCAA Tournament.” The Class of 2016 got to go out swinging, playing the style of ball they love best with the people they love best.
“The locker room after the game is hard,” said Henderson. “On one hand you want to be able to thank the seniors for all they have done. But on the other hand, it’s so bittersweet because it feels like we’re saying goodbye.”
Sadly, we will never see the likes of Weisz, Hans Brase, Miller, Cook, Alexander Lee, or Khyan Rayner on the court playing for Princeton again. But, we can cherish the legacy that they leave us with. They have returned Princeton to a winning culture, laid the foundation for what should be many successful seasons to come, and, of course, given us the first ever Ivy League Conference championship.
So while we say goodbye to the seniors, we will always remember the history and legacy they leave behind. And, as for today, the seniors went out with a bang, giving us one heck of a final ride.