In a matchup for first place in the Ivy League between two of the league’s best — both of whom are off to their best starts to a season since the 1960s — the men’s basketball team fell to the Cornell Big Red 83–68, spoiling what was a perfect Ivy League campaign.
Despite being without their second-leading scorer Isaiah Gray, the Big Red shot 57.6 percent from the field to the Tigers’ 32.2 percent, a season-low for Princeton.
Fans expected a high-scoring affair. Cornell (15–3 overall, 4–0 Ivy League) and Princeton (15–2, 3–1) have the first and third-highest points per game, respectively, among their Ivy League peers. Cornell kept this distinction, almost matching their season-long average points per game with the scoring touch on Saturday.
“Credit to Cornell, they played a great game. It will be important for us to learn and grow from this loss as there are many areas where we can improve,” associate head coach Brett MacConnell wrote in a statement to The Daily Princetonian.
Princeton started the scoring on the first possession by way of a contested layup from senior guard Matt Allocco, who scored just five more points throughout the rest of the contest.
Standout sophomore guard Xaivian Lee hit his first shot of the game and gave Princeton an 8–6 lead. Unfortunately for the Tigers, this was Lee’s lone bucket in the opening half, as he connected on just one of his first four shot attempts.
The Cornell home crowd did all it could to throw off Lee, who is a likely frontrunner for Ivy League Player of the Year. Every time Lee touched the ball, boos from the crowd ensued.
After Cornell took its first lead of the game, first-year guard Dalen Davis hit the Tigers’ only three-pointer of the half to make it 13–11 Tigers with 12:14 remaining in the half.
Both sides were cold from beyond the arc to start the contest — they shot a combined 1–11 in the first nine minutes of the game. The highlight of the opening half for the Tigers came courtesy of junior forward Philip Byriel breaking away on the fast break and putting the Big Red on a poster. The slam was just Byriel’s second field goal of the season, and his teammates celebrated accordingly.
After a three from Cornell forward Keller Boothby gave the Big Red an 18–17 lead, an unsettled Mitch Henderson called timeout. Henderson was not happy with the officials, claiming they had missed an offensive foul on the previous Cornell offensive possession.
From here, the Big Red ran away with it, and Newman Arena was rocking. Another three from forward AK Okereke put them up 23–17. Cornell’s leading scorer guard Chris Manon then connected a three, followed up by a fast break dunk.
A three from guard Nazir Williams at 3:19 stretched the Cornell lead to 14, 36–22.
Off of another timeout by Henderson, Princeton remained ice-cold, failing to connect on a field goal for the remainder of the half. The Big Red capped off an impressive first twenty minutes on a 6–2 run, taking a 43–24 lead to the locker room. The last five minutes of the half saw Cornell outscore the Tigers 15–3.
While the Big Red had an impressive shooting display, it was their defense that stood out. Princeton’s star sophomore duo of Lee and forward Caden Pierce combined for just four points in the first, and their halftime team total of 24 was a season-low.
The two lineups traded baskets for the first nine minutes of the second half, but neither side could manufacture any kind of scoring run. The Tigers then began to hit more threes, including two by junior guard Blake Peters and one by senior forward Zach Martini, who was a bright spot for the Tigers in the loss.
Martini finished with nine points and paced the Tigers’ starters in field goal percentage. He also made a number of hustle plays to keep the Tigers in striking distance.
But the Tigers just couldn’t seem to get the stops needed to cut the lead substantially, and the score was 61–42 at the media timeout.
Missed opportunities continuously plagued the Tigers throughout the start of the second half. Routine layups were missed and free throws were not capitalized on. Multiple offensive rebounds did not lead to second-chance points, which is normally an area where the Tigers excel.
With just over nine minutes left in the game, Lee was fouled on a deep three-point shot. He sank all three and brought the lead down to 18. A full-court press from the Tigers forced a Cornell timeout. The press then forced a five-second violation, even after the timeout, and Pierce drove on the next possession for a difficult layup.
Henderson’s decision to bring full-court pressure lit a fire in the Tigers. A key defensive stop led to Lee getting fouled and going to the free-throw line for a one-and-one, draining both. The Big Red’s fouls began to add up, as Princeton entered the double bonus with more than eight minutes left.
The Tigers trailed by 14 with 7:16 left when Pierce drove to his right and got fouled as he hit the layup. Pierce scored one more point on his free throw to cut the deficit to 11. That deficit, however, did not get any smaller.
Even though Princeton managed to get to the charity stripe consistently in the second half, the difficulty in making field goals never dissipated. Cornell attacked the paint in the final minutes, finding easy shots around the baskets.
A Cornell layup with 2:51 left by Guy Ragland Jr. gave the Big Red an 80–60 lead and the contest was firmly over.
After a historically strong start to their season, the Tigers now sit in third place in the Ivy League. They’ll travel to New Haven on Saturday, Feb. 2, to face off with the second-place Yale Bulldogs (13–6, 4–0), in what will be a very important matchup.
“Now it’s time to re-focus and bounce back with the road weekend upcoming,” MacConnell wrote to the ‘Prince.’
Harrison Blank is an assistant Sports editor for the ‘Prince.’
Hayk Yengibaryan is an associate Sports editor for the ‘Prince.’
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