The men’s basketball team came up just one basket short of punching a ticket to March Madness.
Despite entering the game on an eight-game winning streak against conference opponents, the Tigers (23–6, 12–2 Ivy) were unable to win the Ivy Madness championship on Sunday afternoon, losing in heartbreaking fashion to Yale (19–11, 11–3).
“All the teams that came up here thought they could get it done,” said Princeton Head Coach Mitch Henderson ’98 in the postgame press conference. “You have to play really well for two games to get a win.”
Had they won, the Tigers would have gotten their second-ever Ivy Madness title along with a spot in March Madness. It’s the second consecutive title for the Bulldogs, who will now make the NCAA Tournament for the third time since 2016, when they knocked off Baylor in the first round for the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament win. With the win, Yale also avenges their loss to the Tigers in the 2017 title game.
Although the game was not nearly as back-and-forth as the Tigers’ frenetic 77–73 win over Cornell (15–11, 7–7) in the semifinal — when junior forward Tosan Evbuomwan (21 points, 6 rebounds, and six assists) made the winning shot for the Tigers with 36 seconds remaining — the Yale game was competitive.
Despite not leading for the final 37 minutes, Princeton trailed by single digits for much of the second half, and the Tigers used a late run to whittle down the Yale lead and give themselves a chance to win late. The fine margins by which the game was decided were no surprise, given the tight matchups the teams played earlier in the season, in which both teams won by six points on the road.
In the first matchup in January, Yale managed an 80–74 win at Jadwin Gymnasium behind 17 points from guard Jalen Gabbidon. Senior guard Jaelin Llewellyn led all players with 23.
The Tigers got their revenge in the second matchup at the John J. Lee Amphitheater, winning 81–75 behind monstrous performances from Evbuomwan (26 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists) and senior guard Ethan Wright (23 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists). Jaelin Llewellyn had just four points for the Tigers in the win, his lowest scoring total on the season.
In recent games, Llewellyn’s performances had rebounded; he was averaging 23 points per contest in the four games since the win over Yale, while shooting an impressive 63 percent on field goals. He picked up right where he left off in the semifinal win, in which he finished with a game-high 23 points, opening up the game for the Tigers with a strong left-handed layup.
The Bulldogs also had one of their leaders hot out of the gate. Guard Azar Swain, who was second in the Ivy League in scoring average this season and was coming off of a 25-point game in the Bulldogs’ 67–61 semifinal win over Penn (12–16, 9–5), scored the first two points of the game for Yale at the free throw line. The All-Ivy First Team selection’s success at the line was no surprise, as he entered the game 15th in Division I in free-throw shooting.
Unfortunately for Llewellyn and the Tigers, things began to unravel shortly afterwards, despite the strong start. While trying to set up his team’s offense, Llewellyn had his pocket picked by Bulldogs guard Ben Mbeng in the half-court, who took the ball coast-to-coast for an easy two. A few possessions later, Yale forward EJ Jarvis caught a pass inside and slammed down a big two-hand dunk over Ethan Wright, pushing the Yale lead to 16–10 with 12:39 remaining in the first half.
To extend the lead to double digits, Swain went to work on Llewellyn. In a one-on-one matchup between two of the most skilled players in the Ivy League, Swain managed to find a way into the paint and rise up over his defender for a shot off the glass, putting Yale up 24–14. This was the culmination of an 8–0 scoring run for Yale.
With seven minutes remaining before the break, the Tigers managed to go on a run of their own. It all began with Evbuomwan, who went into the post for an and-one drop step, converting the free throw to bring the Tigers within seven. With about one minute left in the half, Llewellyn knocked down his first three-pointer of the game to bring Princeton within three, 28–25. He shot just 30 percent from the field in the half.
Princeton’s scoring run would come to a screeching halt after Llewellyn’s basket. Yale went on to hit two back-to-back mid-range jumpers to regain control, including a shot clock buzzer-beating fadeaway from guard Jalen Gabbidon in the corner. At halftime, Yale led 32–25.
The first-half deficit for the Tigers was due in large part to their shooting struggles. The team shot a lowly 31 percent from the field, and only hit three of 15 three-point attempts. Leading their effort was Evbuomwan and Llewellyn, putting up eight and seven points, respectively. Swain led Yale with eight points and five rebounds.
“We usually make more shots, and we were getting good shots,” said Wright, who finished with 15 points, after the game. “For myself, I passed up some good ones because I already missed a couple. It’s hard to keep shooting when they’re not going in.”
To start the second half, it seemed that Yale had maintained complete control. They pushed their lead to 38–27, their largest of the game, following a series of aggressive moves inside by forward Matt Knowling.
“We've been really good at moving the ball, but we became a little one-on-one oriented,” Henderson reflected. “Maybe we lost track of what we were going to do.”
It seemed like the game would soon become out of reach for the Tigers; that is, until Evbuomwan once again took over, helping the Tigers clean up their shooting struggles with his dominant presence inside. After hitting back-to-back layups inside, he showed off his court vision with a dime outside to a wide open Ethan Wright for three. The game stood at 45–43, with Princeton trailing by two and 11 minutes to go.
Evbuomwan would finish with 20 points on 62 percent shooting. The rest of the team shot just 35 percent from the field.
Although usually one of the worst shooting teams from distance — taking last place in the conference in three-pointers made and second to last in three-point percentage during the regular season — Yale looked to their shooters on the outside to provide a scoring burst. Swain and guard Matthue Cotton hit consecutive three-pointers to once again stretch the lead to eight at 51–43.
Each time Princeton looked like they were ready to make a run in the second half, Swain stepped up and made big plays on the offensive end to keep his team in the driver’s seat. With five minutes left in the game, Swain hit a three-pointer to put his team ahead 58–48. He would finish with 23 points to lead all scorers, and was given tournament MVP honors.
“We could never get over the hump, but I thought we actually guarded them quite well,” Henderson said. “[Azar] Swain did make some big shots.”
“He’s a really good player, and he made a lot of shots tonight in crucial moments,” Evbuomwan added.
The next few minutes saw both teams trading buckets back and forth, picking up the pace significantly compared to that of the first half. With one minute to go, the game appeared to be over. Mbeng knocked down two free throws to give the Bulldogs a comfortable 64–55 lead.
The next sixty seconds were pure madness.
The Tigers’ late push began with a stop-and-pop three-pointer for Wright. Princeton then turned up the pressure on defense, sending full-court pressure which forced a five-second inbound violation. With no time to waste, junior guard Ryan Langborg caught the ball on the perimeter and drove down the lane, kicking out to an open Llewellyn in the corner. His three-pointer brought the Tigers within three, down 64–61 with 33 seconds remaining.
Down by three with no timeouts left, Princeton intentionally fouled Mbeng, a 69 percent free throw shooter. He stepped up to the charity stripe and knocked down two clutch foul shots.
This damage was quickly undone by Llewellyn. Quickly getting the ball up the court, the floor general dispensed another bomb from downtown, closing the gap to 66–64 with 24 seconds left in the game.
Yale once again would have to face Princeton’s pressure defense. Their experienced guards managed to work the ball up the floor, ultimately finding forward Isaiah Kelly inside. Kelly rose up and attempted to drop in a quick two, but was fouled hard at the rim by Wright, who prevented him from even getting the shot to the rim. Only a 62 percent free throw shooter, Kelly missed both at the line.
With just 14 seconds on the clock and no timeouts remaining, the Tigers knew they had to act fast. Evbuomwan corralled the defensive rebound and promptly found Llewellyn. As the final seconds of the tournament ticked away, the ball was in the hands of one of Princeton’s biggest stars.
“We’ve won a lot of these games in the last few years,” Henderson remarked. “I think we all thought we were going to get there.”
Llewellyn made a hard move to his left, driving baseline past the defense and finding his way into the paint. With less than five seconds on the clock, he got caught in the air, looking to kick the ball out to an open Ryan Langborg spotting up on the right wing.
The ball never made it to Langborg. Instead, it hit the back of the backboard and came crashing down into the body of Llewellyn, whose feet stood out of bounds. Yale took possession, leading 66–64 with 1.5 seconds on the clock.
After Yale called a timeout, Isaiah Kelly stood on the baseline to inbound the ball. He looked deep, launching a football-like toss that soared past half-court. Llewellyn came up with the steal.
With no time remaining, Llewellyn was forced to chuck up a half-court heave that would have won his team the championship. The crowd held its breath as the final shot of the weekend hung in the air for what felt like an eternity. For a brief moment, the desperate heave looked as if it might go in, but Llewellyn’s attempt missed wide left. Yale had officially won the Ivy League Men's Basketball championship.
“It feels a little bit like the end of the world,” Henderson said.
The loss made for Princeton’s lowest scoring game of the season. Prior to the matchup, the Tigers had only put up under 70 points just twice all season. They were also scoring over 80 points per game entering the weekend, good for the ninth-best scoring offense in Division I, and scored more points this year than any other season in school history.
“We've been able to score all season,” Henderson said. “Tonight just didn’t go our way. Hopefully, at some point, we can remind these guys that they’ve had a hell of a year, and that they’re a special team. They’re a special group of guys to coach, and this senior class is really unique.”
One of the worst parts about the loss was the sour ending for the senior class, whose final appearance in the Ivy League tournament ended on an unfortunate note.
“We have a very disappointed group of seniors right now,” Henderson said. “I feel really bad for them right now.”
While they could not pull out the victory against Yale, Henderson commended the seniors on their team-first mentality. He noted that even the seniors who don’t see the court as much are an irreplaceable part of the program.
“They’re a great group top to bottom,” he said. “They make the team unselfish. They’re humble. They come to work everyday. And they rarely care about who gets the attention.”
The shooting numbers told the story for the Tigers. While they managed to overcome a poor first-half shooting performance in the second half — shooting over 50 percent from the field and 47 percent from deep in the final 20 minutes — the team still ended up with one of their worst shooting performances of the year, making just 41 percent of field goals and 33 percent of their three-point attempts.
Both numbers were significantly worse than the 48.5 percent from the field and 40 percent from three that they shot in the semifinal. The marks were also well below their season averages; the Tigers entered the game sixth in Division I in three-point shooting percentage.
Even though the Tigers are known for their shooting prowess, the performance is not necessarily shocking, given the fact that Yale allowed opponents to shoot just 27.9 percent from three-point range in conference play.
Winning the Ivy League tournament gives Yale an automatic bid to March Madness.
“We’re really disappointed for our guys to not get an opportunity to play in the NCAA [Tournament],” Coach Henderson said.
“I’ll probably put the season into perspective later, but right now I’m just really disappointed,” Evbuomwan said.
Henderson wants his team to maintain perspective after the loss. Yet, they still feel every bit of the heartbreak.
“I'm going to try to let them all know that if this is the worst thing that ever happens to them in their life, it’s going to be a good life,” he said. “But, it hurts. I have no doubt we could have won games in the NCAA Tournament.”
While they won’t get that one-way ticket to the NCAA tournament, basketball season is not yet over for the Tigers. Because Princeton won the Ivy League Championship in the regular season, they received an automatic bid to the National Invitational Tournament (NIT). The brackets for the NIT will be released later tonight, Sunday, March 13.
For today, Coach Henderson is not concerned with preparing for the NIT.
“I just want to get home first,” he said. “Make sure they’re okay. They have school tomorrow.”
Matt Drapkin is a staff writer for the ‘Prince’ sports section. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @mattdrapkin.
Wilson Conn is a co-head editor for the Sports section at the ‘Prince’ who typically covers football, basketball, and breaking news. He is also a senior writer for the Podcast section. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @wilson_conn.