When the Princeton men’s basketball season ended, one basket shy of all the Tigers had worked for, Sydney Johnson ’97 — who profoundly despised losing as both a player and a coach — did something unexpected: He allowed his team to say goodbye.
Before heading back into the depths of the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa after a 59–57 NCAA Tournament defeat against Kentucky March 17, Johnson motioned his players not to the locker room but toward the Tiger faithful sitting across from his team’s bench.
First came senior Dan Mavraides, who had just concluded his final collegiate game with a team-high 14 points and a game-tying step-back jump shot in the lane that hung, hoped, and stuck with 34 seconds remaining. As Mavraides blew kisses, extending both hands toward the stands, his teammates joined him, pointing to family and friends.
“We didn’t want to celebrate a loss in any way, shape, or form — that’s not what it was about,” Johnson said. “When someone is giving you the support that our fans have given us, you’ve got to say thank you.”
Twelve days earlier, Johnson kept his team from the locker room for a different reason. Immediately after a 79–67 loss at Harvard in a game that could have secured an outright Ivy League championship for the Tigers, Princeton sat on the bench at the coach’s instruction and watched about 400 Crimson fans celebrating en masse at center court. The win had given Harvard at least a share of the league title, its first in school history.
The Tigers knew then that to advance to the NCAA Tournament, they would face a more difficult path, first to the Palestra versus Penn and then to a neutral site for a third match with the Crimson. They sat in silence for five minutes.
“We needed to draw a direct line between our effort, what we did not bring to the game, and the final result,” Johnson said of his decision to watch the Crimson storm the court. “We needed to see that when you get outworked, ... they get to celebrate. If you want to do anything about it, you’re going to change your ways.”
Three days later at Penn, Princeton looked to be 18 minutes away from a disappointing conclusion, trailing 27–18 early in the second half when Johnson called a timeout. “We talked at halftime about playing with passion, and then we come out and we’re going through the motions,” Johnson said. “This wasn’t the game to ease into things. ... It was the game to put our absolute heart out there.”
Princeton responded with an incredible run, hitting 14 of 17 shots from the field and breaking away for a 70–58 victory. When the final buzzer sounded, forward Kareem Maddox ’11 fell backward onto the floor with his arms over his head. The entire Tiger squad came over to lift him up. In the final 20 minutes, Maddox had carried his team with 21 points and five assists. Princeton earned its half of the Ivy title, the program’s first since 2004.
The third Princeton-Harvard game, for the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, was played at Yale in front of an overflow crowd divided directly down the middle of the gym, half sporting orange and half in deep red. The game came down to the final 2.8 seconds. Trailing by a point with Mavraides inbounding under the Tiger basket, guard Douglas Davis ’12 was able to catch the ball in the left corner, dribble twice to his right, use a pump fake to create a sliver of space underneath Harvard’s Oliver McNally, and lean in for a jumper as time expired.
“Originally I thought they were going to deny me the ball, but I was able to get open,” a still-stunned Davis said afterward. “I took a couple dribbles and was able to fade. It felt good, went in, and I fell on the ground. That was the worst decision I ever made because everybody just jumped on me.”
Landing on his back directly in front of Princeton’s student section with both hands in the air, Davis was swarmed by a whirlwind of overjoyed fans, cheerleaders, and band members.
“When it went in,” Mavraides said, “it was like my life flashing before my eyes, but it was my four years here — from the worst team in Princeton history all the way to the champions of the Ivy League.”
Princeton drew Southeastern Conference-champion Kentucky for its NCAA opener. The Tigers bottled up Kentucky’s stellar freshman guard, Brandon Knight, for the entire afternoon, but Knight converted a tough layup over the fingertips of Maddox, the Ivy Defensive Player of the Year, with two seconds to go, giving the Wildcats a 59–57 victory.
Mavraides said that on a one-to-10 scale of difficulty, the shot was a 10. “Kareem is our longest, biggest defender,” he added. “There is no one else I would rather have on [Knight] driving to the basket in that late-game situation.”
It was an abrupt end to a special senior year for Maddox and Mavraides. Both attempted to look at the bigger picture, even while the pain of the loss was recent and raw.
“We had a chance to win,” Mavraides said. “Everyone in this locker room believed that coming into this game. It is very disappointing, but stepping back looking at my whole career here at Princeton, I can’t be angry. ... It would have been really nice to get a win today, but as a whole, looking at this season, it was definitely a success.”