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Myles Stephens and Princeton came up short against Yale Saturday

By Jack Graham

After the first half against Yale in the Ivy tournament semifinal, it was looking bleak for Princeton men’s basketball. Down 12 at the home court of an opponent who had already beaten them twice, the Tigers appeared outmatched.

A blowout, however, would not have been in the spirit of March. Third-seeded Princeton (16–12, 8–6 Ivy) launched a comeback, rallying to take a seven-point lead over second-seeded Yale (21–7, 10–4) with five minutes to play. 

An experienced Yale squad led by NBA prospect Miye Oni found a way to win anyway, defeating Princeton 83–77 to earn an opportunity to play Harvard in the final tomorrow.

“We definitely put ourselves in a position to win,” said Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson. “That’s a testament to [senior guard] Myles [Stephens] and the rest of the seniors.”

One could argue that the game’s decisive moment was not a basket or defensive stand, but a foul call. With Princeton leading 71–66 with 3:10 remaining, Stephens was whistled for his fifth foul for making light contact with Oni, sidelining him for the rest of the game. Without their best defender and All-Ivy first teamer on the floor, the Tigers had no answer for Oni, who scored Yale’s next six points to tie the game at 72. 

“They were on me, so of course I’m going to say I disagree,” Stephens said about the foul calls. “But it is what it is, and we’ve got to play through it.”

With Stephens gone, Princeton relied on a lineup consisting of three first-years, sophomore forward Jerome Desrosiers, and junior center Richmond Aririguzoh. They battled but weren’t able to make the big play needed to secure a win. Yale forward Blake Reynolds drilled a three with 38 seconds remaining to give Yale a 77–74 lead, and the Bulldogs made their free throws in the game’s final seconds.

“Credit goes to them,” said Henderson. “16 for 16 from the line. They needed to be, and we needed a couple more shots.” 

“Watching the game and watching the young guys compete, I was actually really confident,“ Stephens said. “Of course I wish I was out there, but I’m really proud of how they were playing.”

In the first half, Princeton kept pace with Yale for the first few minutes before the Bulldogs began to pull away. Princeton made too many mistakes defensively, leaving Yale players open for threes and shots at the rim. Yale took a seemingly commanding 46–34 lead into halftime.

“We’ve got them right where we want them,” Henderson joked when asked about his halftime message. “We’ve really struggled to score, and we had 33 [sic] points at halftime, [so] I said we’re doing great. We’ve just got to start guarding them.”

The Tigers evidently found this motivating. In the second half, a reinvigorated Princeton team emerged. First-year guard Ethan Wright started the half with a layup, then Desrosiers hit a three. Stephens knocked down a few baskets to cut Yale’s lead to one as Princeton’s fan section roared. In all, the Tigers began the half on a 17–2 run to take a 51–48 lead with 13:39 to play. 

“If I was to describe the number one thing I like about coaching, it was the way they were playing in the second half,” said Henderson. “They were having such a good time, [and] every play was working that we called.”

As impressive as the run was, it wouldn’t be enough. Yale shot 50.8 percent from the field and 100 percent from the free-throw line. Oni had 23 points, 10 of which came in the final five minutes, as the Bulldogs overcame a seven-point deficit of their own to earn the win. 

The Tigers weren’t at full strength for the tournament. They played without guard Devin Cannady, who took a voluntary leave of absence from Princeton midway through the season, and sophomore guard Ryan Schwieger, injured with a concussion. In their absence, the Tigers shot just 6–24 from three, though they had some timely ones in the second half. 

Despite the Ivy League logo replacing the Yale logo at midcourt of John J. Lee Amphitheater in New Haven, host Yale enjoyed a home-court, and home-crowd, advantage. Stephens didn’t think that played a factor.

“In the second half when we made that run, you could hear our fans,” he said. “I think it was pretty even, particularly in the second half.”

Aririguzoh led Princeton in scoring with 23 points on 8–11 shooting. Llewellyn had 17 points, 13 of which came in the second half, in one of his best offensive performances in Ivy play.

“It’s so unfair to put expectations on someone that needs growth and time,” Henderson said about Llewellyn. “You saw some signs tonight of what he’s going to be.” 

Yale will play top-seeded Harvard, who beat Penn today, in the championship game Sunday at noon in New Haven for an automatic NCAA tournament bid. For Princeton, who won’t accept an invitation to a lesser postseason tournament, the offseason starts today.

“I think it just goes to show you how hard winning is and how devoted to the details you have to be, so when you come to these situations and you're missing a guy like Myles, other guys can step up,” Aririguzoh said. “It makes you want to go back into the gym and just pay attention to those little details.”