NEW YORK CITY — Despite the fact that junior forward Nathan Walton's weekend statistics show just two minutes, two points and two rebounds, those in attendance Saturday night at Levien Gymnasium in New York City would agree his contribution was much greater than those numbers indicate.
With the men's basketball team (10-7 overall, 2-0 Ivy League) clinging to a five-point advantage, sophomore center Chris Young's fourth foul with five minutes, ten seconds to play forced head coach Bill Carmody to call on the injured Walton to protect the lead.
Walton entered the game and immediately wrestled down an important defensive rebound, despite his broken right hand, which was protected by a clumsy cast. On the next Tiger possession, Walton proved his worth again, putting back freshman guard Spencer Gloger's missed fast break layup to push the Tigers to an insurmountable 45-38 lead with 4:27 remaining.
Princeton went on to secure a 53-46 victory over the Lions, the Tigers' second Ivy League victory in as many nights. Friday in Ithaca, N.Y., Princeton handed Cornell (6-10, 0-4) its third Ivy loss in a row after surviving a second-half charge, 59-44. In other break action, Princeton defeated Catholic University (13-3) Jan 24 in a 90-49 rout.
Following the win over Columbia, postgame comments centered around Walton's brief stint, specifically his clutch stick-back.
"Nate was huge for us tonight — it was the same shot he hit against UNC-Wilmington last year," Young said, alluding to Walton's tip-in at the buzzer that sent Princeton and the Seahawks into overtime last season in a 61-54 Tiger victory.
Walton's put-back had the same effect against the Lions (8-9, 2-2), derailing a comeback and keying the final push that ended in Princeton's seven-point win.
Young's removal Saturday was made all the more significant by his outstanding performance during the early stages against Columbia. Until his fourth foul, Young had dominated the Lions inside, taking advantage of Columbia's decision not to double team him consistently. The Princeton big man finished the night with 21 points to go along with five steals.
"Teams have been fronting him all year," Carmody said. "(Columbia head coach Armond Hill '85) was basically saying, 'Let's play him head on and see what happens.' "
After Young netted 12 points in the first half, Hill relented on his strategy in the second stanza and began to double team Young more often. Young handled the pressure well, but key three-point shots by sophomore forward Mike Bechtold and junior guard C.J. Chapman found the bottom of the net to help preserve the victory.
Bechtold and sophomore forward Ray Robins saw their playing time skyrocket this past weekend because of injuries to Walton and senior forward Mason Rocca. Robins made a name for himself against Catholic, when he made his first collegiate start and recorded a career-high 27 points during the 90-49 Tiger victory.
He proved his effort against that Division III opponent wasn't a fluke the following weekend, scoring five points Saturday night and collecting four rebounds. Robins' lone steal on the game led to an impressive double-clutch dunk. Bechtold also contributed, ending the night with nine points and four boards.
"With Chris in foul trouble the past two nights, we've asked a lot from the bench," sophomore guard Ahmed El-Nokali said. "They have really stepped up and played well."
Foul trouble also caught the Tigers off guard Friday night in Ithaca. Young was whistled for his fourth foul with 14:38 remaining in the second half against the Big Red. At that point in the contest, the Tigers were up by ten points.
Instead of testing Walton's hand, Carmody elected to go with a lineup that consisted entirely of guards or converted guards — putting Chapman, Gloger, Bechtold, El-Nokali and Robins out on the floor together. That strategy didn't work out as well as Carmody would have liked, as Cornell trimmed the Tiger lead to four.
Chapman then stepped up and hit a long-range bomb with 10:14 to go that pushed the lead back to 39-32, one of five Chapman three-pointers during the game. The junior finished the game with a career-high 19 points and proved that he can assume the role of Tiger floor leader.
"I've been here three years and played in big games before," Chapman said. "Whether we were up by twenty or down by three, I would have taken the shot. I was pretty much wide open."
In addition to the Tiger effort from behind the arc — 8 for 18 overall — Cornell's own play contributed to the Big Red's demise. A team known for its poor shooting, Cornell proved exactly why it has that reputation, shooting 18 for 62 from the field and 4 for 19 from outside the arc.
The pair of wins puts the Tigers into a first-place tie in the league with rival Penn, which also defeated Columbia and Cornell over the weekend. Columbia came into Friday night's matchup with the Quakers at 2-0 in conference play, but as so many teams have learned, early season success is often determined by simply avoiding early matchups with the Tigers or the Quakers.
NOTES: Rocca's injury saga continues. His surgically-repaired ankle became infected, and he will be out for at least another 10-15 days, missing at least next weekend's games against Yale and Brown . . . The start of Saturday's game was delayed 25 minutes after transportation problems caused a late Tiger arrival.