New Haven, Conn. (CT) — After a historic start to the season, things have started to cool down for the Tigers (16–3 overall, 4–2 Ivy League). Opposing crowds have given Princeton a tough time on the road. This proved to be the case once again on Friday evening when, despite a strong first half performance from the Tigers, the Yale (15–6, 6–0) crowd propelled its squad to a 70–64 win.
Three-point shooting made the difference in the first half. The Tigers shot an impressive 60 percent from beyond the arc while Yale hit only three of its 11 first half attempts. In the second half, it was a different story. The Yale defense held Princeton scoreless for over a four minute stretch, shot 55 percent from the field, and limited sophomore guard Xaivian Lee to just seven points.
“Our offense today was probably a B, maybe B-, but defensively we were really good,” Bulldogs head coach James Jones told The Daily Princetonian postgame.
The last time both sides met was during the 2023 Ivy Madness Final. Despite sweeping the Tigers in the 2022-23 regular season, the Bulldogs fell short when it mattered most. The Tigers went on to represent the Ivy League in the NCAA tournament and make it to the Sweet 16.
“100 percent,” Yale guard Bez Mbeng replied when asked if the team had marked this game on their calendars. “We wanted to treat this like any other game, but we definitely had some extra motivation coming into today.”
Mbeng — the reigning Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year — was the primary defender on Princeton star Xaivian Lee.
“He’s obviously really tough,” Lee added. “Great defender. It was fun going at it, and I’m excited to play him again.”
Jones had nothing but praise for Mbeng. “He does a great job at making it hard. We try to stay man to man, and a lot of that is because Bez [Mbeng] can get over ball screens on guys like Xaivian [Lee],” Jones told the ‘Prince.’
Mbeng opened the scoring with a bank three, with the gym quickly erupting into volcanic cheers. The Princeton Tigers didn't let the hostility of the crowd rattle them, as junior guard Blake Peters immediately responded with two threes on consecutive possessions, reminding Yale fans that the Tigers were there to play. Both teams, defensively focused, executed sturdy and steadfast defense, as the score stood 11-10 in Princeton's favor after a Lee triple with 13:30 remaining.
Sophomore forward Caden Pierce and senior forward Zach Martini took turns battling Yale's sophomore 7’ goliath, Danny Wolf. Despite the constant team effort to shut down Wolf, his presence still dominated the paint both offensively and defensively.
“It’s a fun challenge for us,” Pierce told the ‘Prince’ in regards to the matchup against Wolf. “It’s not often you see a player like him. We look at it as a fun opportunity to test where we’re at defensively, and we’re excited to get that opportunity again sometime soon.”
Halfway through the first half, the Tigers found their flow offensively. Martini hit a pull up transition three, and Lee followed that with a bank three on a seemingly dead and expiring Princeton possession. Shortly after, it was first-year guard Dalen Davis stroking a three that gave the Tigers a 22–16 lead.
The Bulldogs had no answer for Lee in the first half. The Canadian standout guard hit his third three of the half over the outstretched arms of Wolf to keep the Tigers lead at six, with 27-21.
On the other end of the court, Wolf again proved to be a menace in the paint, making his shots look easy against the smaller Princeton defenders. However, Pierce connected on a deep three to give Princeton its largest lead of the game at 32–23. Bulldog forward Matt Knowling provided light for the Yale offense scoring through contact and earning an and-one. But to no avail, Pierce answered with yet another deep three.
The final minutes of the half proved to be vital for the Bulldogs. The Yale defense held the Tigers scoreless for nearly three minutes while scoring four of their own. Wolf scored the final four points of the half in a defensively grueling stretch, and both teams ran into the locker room as the game stood 35–30 in favor of the Tigers.
In the second half, Lee continued right where he left off. He hit his fourth triple of the game early to give Princeton a 40–34 lead with just over 18 minutes remaining.
The turning point of the game came with 17:20 remaining in the game. Down by six, Wolf forced a double team before connecting on a behind-the-back pass to Knowling to cut the deficit to four. The play landed Wolf on Sports Center Top 10 Plays that night and ignited the Yale student section.
SC TOP 10. @YaleMBasketball's Danny Wolf landed at No. 6 on @SportsCenter Top-10 Plays last night with this behind-the-back pass to Matt Knowling. The Bulldogs defeated Princeton stay undefeated in league play and will host Penn tonight. 🌿🏀 pic.twitter.com/CbltqVyuLD— Ivy League (@IvyLeague) February 3, 2024
“Come Ivy League season when you have a big game like this, the fans rallying around us is really important, and it helps us do what we do best,” Wolf told the ‘Prince.’ “Just being able to play off that atmosphere and momentum is incredible.”
With the growing energy of the Yale crowd, Princeton began to falter and failed to convert offensively. Moments later, the once nine-point Tiger lead had vanished, and the game was tied at 40. After a timeout by head coach Mitch Henderson ’98, Davis hit a contested mid-range jumper to regain the lead for Princeton.
“He played within himself and made some huge shots,” Henderson noted postgame about Davis.
The next five minutes of the game saw both sides force crucial stops on the defensive end. With 12:49 left in the game, the Tigers held a narrow 44–43 lead. The Bulldogs’ lone lead of the game thus far came after the opening possession triple to make it 3–0.
However, guard John Poulakidas had other plans. Poulakidas, one of the nation’s best three-pointer shooters, hit Yale’s first three of the half, bringing the crowd to its feet and giving the Bulldogs an important 46–44 lead. After a flagrant one-foul was issued against the Tigers, Pierce hit yet another shot from beyond the arc to tie the game at 47 with 9:30 remaining.
The triples continued to pour. Senior guard and captain Matt Allocco converted before Wolf hit one over Lee to give Yale the lead once again. The bulldogs continued to play well on both ends of the court. After forcing a Pierce turnover, Yale held a 56–52 lead with five minutes remaining.
The next stretch proved to be detrimental for Henderson’s squad. After going over four minutes without a score, Pierce went baseline to give the Tigers some life. With 3:23 remaining in the game, the Tigers trailed by four and had no momentum going for them.
Following the final media timeout, Yale captain August Mahoney hit what appeared to be the dagger. The shot gave Yale its largest lead of the night at 61–54. The Tigers attempted to crawl back after Pierce connected on a triple.
Is this the dagger?!?!?!?— Daily Princetonian Sports (@PrinceSports) February 3, 2024
Senior guard and captain August Mahoney drills a three for the Bulldogs to give them there biggest lead of the evening.
Pierce would respond the following possession.
2:32 to go:@YaleMBasketball 61@PrincetonMBB 56 pic.twitter.com/Li4SY5HTGO
After taking the lead, Yale made costly mistakes down the stretch. Missed free throws by Wolf along with turnovers shrunk the Bulldog lead to two with 21 seconds remaining. However, it proved to be too little too late for Henderson’s squad. Clutch free throws by Mbeng and Wolf down the stretch sealed a 70–64 win for the Bulldogs.
The win makes it 11 wins from the last 13 matchups over the Tigers for the Bulldogs. Wolf — likely the current frontrunner for Ivy League Player of the Year — finished with a game-high 21 points and 12 rebounds, marking his ninth double-double of the season. When the final whistle sounded, the crowd started cheering Wolf’s name.
“Danny’s a tremendous player, and he showed a little bit of everything he can do tonight,” Jones told the ‘Prince.’ “He can do the hard things really well that certain guys can’t do.”
After the emotional loss to the Bulldogs, the Tigers traveled further north to play the Brown Bears (6–15, 2–14) on Saturday evening.
“Now you’re in the back-to-backs,” Henderson added. “The Saturday nights will be difficult.”
The Tigers went into Providence hoping to end their two-game losing streak against the Ivy League’s top scorer, Bears guard Kino Lilly Jr. The Princeton defense did an excellent job in the first half, holding Lilly Jr. to just two points with zero made field goals. During the halftime break, the Tigers held a slim 30–28 lead.
In the second half, both sides continued to trade buckets. With just over eight minutes remaining, the Tigers led 55–53. From that point on, the Princeton defense dominated. The Tigers held the Bears scoreless for three minutes, making huge stops before Alloco converted an and-one to give Princeton a five-point lead. The Bears scored just seven points in the final eight minutes as Princeton hung on for a 70–60 victory.
The difference for the Tigers on Saturday night was free-throw shooting. The Tigers attempted only three free throws all game against the Bulldogs, a season-low. Against the Bears, the Tigers got to the line early and often, going 20–21 from the charity stripe. Lee had his seventh 20-point game while Pierce added 13 points and 14 rebounds for his ninth double-double of the season. Notably, Peters converted his 100th triple of his career early in the second half.
After the win against Brown, Princeton sits in third place of the Ivy League standings behind undefeated Yale and Cornell (17–3, 6–0). Henderson’s squad has work to do if it wants the highly desired one seed in the 2024 Ivy Madness tournament.
The Tigers will host the Penn Quakers (9–12, 1–6) next Saturday at Jadwin Gymnasium. Tipoff will be at 6:00 p.m. EST with streaming available via ESPN+. Despite a subpar record, the Tigers cannot afford to overlook their rivals next weekend. Earlier this season, the Quakers beat then No. 22 ranked Villanova at the iconic Palestra.
Hayk Yengibaryan is an associate Sports editor for the ‘Prince.’
JP Ohl is a staff Sports writer for the ‘Prince.’
Please send corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.