This weekend’s New England road trip was anything but smooth sailing for Princeton men’s basketball (16–9, 8–4 Ivy).
The Tigers took the floor against Dartmouth (11–17, 2–10) Friday night in Hanover hours after that senior guard Devin Cannady was leaving the team to spend time with his family and declare for the NBA draft. Head coach Mitch Henderson ’98 missed the game due to illness, so 32-year old associate head coach Brett MacConnell stepped up in his place.
Saturday night in Cambridge, Boston Celtics star Kyrie Irving watched courtside as his protégé, Harvard (16–9, 9–3) guard Bryce Aiken, dismantled the Princeton defense in the second half.
Nonetheless, the team came out of the weekend with the prize it’s been working towards for months: a spot in the Ivy League basketball tournament.
After holding off Dartmouth for a 77–76 overtime win, Princeton guaranteed itself a top-four finish in the conference and a mid-March trip to New Haven.
The Tigers scraped by a Big Green squad that is better than its record indicates despite squandering an eight-point lead with 1:22 to play in regulation. First-year Dartmouth guard James Foye capped the comeback with a miraculous deep three with two seconds remaining to even the score at 60.
Princeton reeled off the first eight points in overtime thanks to a pair of baskets from first-year guard Jaelin Llewellyn and a three from senior guard Myles Stephens before narrowly surviving another furious Dartmouth comeback to earn the one-point win. With Friday’s win, Princeton swept the season series against Dartmouth by a combined two points.
The Tigers were propelled offensively by reigning Ivy League player of the week sophomore guard Ryan Schwieger, who scored a career-high 26 points. Schwieger had ice water in his veins late in the game, swishing a series of free throws in overtime to help his team keep its lead.
Princeton scored just 19 points in the first half, and Dartmouth took a 26–19 lead to the locker room. MacConnell clearly made some adjustments at halftime — Princeton quickly narrowed the gap and scored 41 second-half points to more than double its first-half output.
Stephens finished second in scoring for Princeton with 19 points, and Llewellyn added 17, eight of which were in overtime.
Henderson returned to the Princeton bench Saturday night against Harvard, but the team’s momentum from the previous night did not carry over. Despite Harvard coach Tommy Amaker’s Senior Night decision to play five seniors who normally barely crack Harvard’s rotation for the first five minutes of the game, the Tigers generated little offense in the beginning of Saturday’s contest.
Fortunately for Princeton, Harvard wasn’t much more effective on the offensive end, and the Tigers trailed just 23–22 after the first half.
As was the case when the two teams met in Jadwin last month, the second half belonged to Bryce Aiken. The Randolph N.J. native proved too much for even Princeton defensive ace Stephens to handle. He hit deep threes and deftly maneuvered his way to the basket for layups en route to 16 second-half points and a 66–58 Harvard win. After defeating Yale (19–6, 9–3), the Crimson moved into a tie for first in the Ancient Eight.
Princeton will conclude its regular season next week at home against Yale and Brown (18–10, 6–6). With one win, the Tigers would secure at least the three seed for the tournament.
Questions still surround this team. It’s 0–3 and counting against Harvard and Yale, likely the top two seeds in the tournament. Its current best offensive player is a guy (Schwieger) the coaching staff didn’t deem worthy of playing more than five minutes in a game just two weeks ago.
However, the Tigers will be one of the four teams playing for a conference championship and NCAA tournament bid in two weeks. In this year’s Ivy League, that’s no small accomplishment.