PHILADELPHIA — Survive and advance.
In the inaugural Ivy League Tournament, the Princeton men’s basketball team followed an old tournament motto.
The top-seeded Tigers never led in regulation, rallied in the second half, and never trailed in overtime in a 72-64 win over Penn, the fourth seed and host, at the Palestra in the first tournament semifinal March 11.
Princeton 72, Penn 64 (OT)
Ivy League Tournament Semifinal
Myles Stephens ’19 laid in an offensive rebound with 5.3 seconds left in regulation to force overtime, then started the overtime with two straight baskets on his way to a game-high 21 points. The recent first-team All-Ivy selection and Defensive Player of the Year selection added 10 rebounds for his first double-double of the season as Princeton improved to 22-6 overall, while Penn fell to 13-15 to end its season.
“Myles put us on his back several times throughout the course of the game,” said Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson ’98. “He hit the shot that tied it up, and I thought the first basket of the overtime, it was like a bag of air went out and got us feeling like we could do this.”
Princeton will meet third-seeded Yale, a 73-71 winner over Harvard, in the Ivy Tournament championship noon Sunday at the Palestra. The tournament champion earns the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
“I think it’s a great thing,” Stephens said of the tournament. “It definitely ups the intensity of the league. The players are really enjoying it. The Palestra is rocking. I think it’s great for the league and the players. I think it’s going to be a great thing in the years going forward.”
Against Penn, Amir Bell ’18 came off the bench to score 16 points. Devin Cannady ’19’s outside shooting was off, but he finished with a double-double with 12 points and was a perfect 10-for-10 on free throws to go with a career-high 11 rebounds.
Henderson said he’d hoped to see Bell on the All-Ivy list, but the junior did not even get an honorable mention. “I thought he was terrific all season and tonight he carried us again,” Henderson said. “He made a lot of big plays. It was typical Amir.”
Princeton overcame a combined 6-for-25 shooting from two of its three All-Ivy League first-team selections, Spencer Weisz ’17, the Ivy League Player of the Year, and Steven Cook ’17, and Cannady was just 1-for-8 from the field. The team shot 28 percent from 3-point range. Princeton trailed by 10 points for the first time in the second half of an Ivy game.
“We hadn’t been down so far this season in the second half, so there was one way to do it and they had to go to the basket,” Henderson said. “I thought the guys did a good job of being aggressive.”
Princeton’s comeback kept alive its NCAA hopes and added a chapter in the historic Penn-Princeton rivalry. The Tigers have now won a program-record eight straight against Penn, and this was one of its most difficult in that stretch.
“It was a real physical game,” Henderson said. “It felt like a championship game. It felt like a playoff game.”
It is the first three-game sweep of Penn in one season for a Princeton team. Princeton extended its winning streak to 18 straight to match the third longest in program history (1996-97). It’s also the second-longest current streak in the nation behind only America East champion Vermont’s 21. Princeton and Vermont were the only Division I teams to go unbeaten in conference play this year. The Tigers have won 15 straight Ivy games. Their 22 wins this season equals their best under Henderson.
“We’re having a nice run here,” Henderson said. “I told the guys, I think we’re getting better right now. We found a different way to play, and tonight Penn really challenged us in that way. I thought we made some adjustments and that’s what this team has been able to do all season. We played a small lineup, and that’s en vogue when you can play that way if you have some tough players. We found ways to get to the basket.”
Princeton tied Penn for the first time since the second minute of the game, 49-49, on Amir Bell’s 3-pointer off a kickout from Cook with 8:18 left.
Princeton missed three chances to take their first lead in the final five minutes of the game, and Weisz picked up his fourth foul at the defensive end and had to sit for a minute and a half as the Tigers fell behind, 55-53. The deficit grew to 57-53 on a pair of Penn free throws, but Cannady helped the Tigers answer back at the line. He converted a 1-and-1 and two more free throws after he was fouled on a drive to tie the game, 57-57.
“It was a real physical game. It felt like a championship game. It felt like a playoff game.”
Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson ’98
At the other end, Penn’s Matt Howard bounced one around the rim and in to put Princeton behind, 59-57, with 42.3 seconds to go.
Princeton called a timeout with 30.7 seconds left to set up a play. Bell drove the lane, but the ball was tipped away. It was kicked out to Weisz, whose 3-pointer bounced high off the rim. The rebound was controlled by Cook, whose shot from the baseline missed.
Princeton fouled Howard, who missed the front end of the 1-and-1, and Bell drove the lane in transition, but missed. Stephens snared the offensive rebound off the rim and laid it back in to tie it, 59-59.
“The play was for Amir to go to the rim,” Stephens said. “The game plan was to get to the rim in the second half. I knew the ball might come off. It had come off two other times this season. It came right off in my hands and I was able to put it in. So right place, right time.”
The Tigers had to defend for one more possession in regulation. Penn got a 3-point attempt at the buzzer but it was wide right, and Princeton headed into overtime with momentum and confidence.
“I definitely think it gave us new life,” Stephens said. “And we were able to take advantage of that early on, and our defense stepped up in overtime. I think that’s what ultimately led us to victory.”
The Tigers won the tap and scored the first nine points of overtime while holding Penn without a score until 45 seconds remained. They held Penn to 2-for-9 shooting while converting 7-of-8 free throws. It was a complete turnaround from the way the game had begun.
Princeton only tied the game once in the first half, at 2-2, and trailed by as much as 28-19 before closing the half on an 11-5 run.
Princeton had a hard time building momentum. When Bell and then Cook made short shots in the lane following Weisz’s layup, it was only the second time the Tigers recorded unanswered baskets in the half. At the other end, Princeton had difficulty preventing Penn from getting to the rim in the first half. Nine of the Quakers’ 14 field goals came from within six feet of the basket.
“They were much more aggressive than we were both offensively and defensively,” Weisz said. “We make a living on our defensive end. They were a little too comfortable. Eventually in the second half we adjusted a bit and went after them a bit more and that kind of changed the game and changed the momentum a little bit and fortunately we were able to come out ahead.”
Penn shot 50 percent in the first half and made five 3-pointers. Princeton was 3-for-8 from beyond the arc and shot almost 43 percent. In the second half, those numbers got worse for both teams. Princeton held Penn to 37 percent shooting, but only shot 29 percent itself. Henderson credited Penn for getting his Tigers out of sync, but also was proud of his team’s ability to overcome its shooting woes.
“We had one turnover in the second half,” Henderson said. “We didn’t shoot the ball well, but we got a lot of shots. And we got to the free throw line.”
After Stephens hit a layup to trim the Princeton deficit to 33-32 to start the second half, Penn went on an 11-2 run to open a 44-34 lead with 15:46 left. It was the first time this season that Princeton trailed an Ivy opponent by double digits in the second half of a game. That’s when the Tigers showed their resolve.
“If I didn’t know them better, I would have questioned a little bit of that myself,” Henderson said. “We just said, ‘What are we going to do here?’ Their ability to have a conversation with each other — it wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t fun, we were calling each other names — but I’m so proud of them, they figured a way to get it done.”
Stephens’ layup on the ensuing possession ended the run. Bell blocked a layup, and Princeton converted it into a dunk by Stephens at the other end. Weisz followed with a 3-pointer from straight away and the deficit was cut to 44-41. After a Penn 3-pointer, Stephens made two free throws and Cook hit a layup to inch Princeton closer, 47-45.
“With 15 minutes left in the game, we got more aggressive, way more aggressive,” Henderson said. “All these guys, they had it. We were just getting pounded, haymaker after haymaker. I think they just got fed up with it. I thought that turned the tide of it.”
Notes: At halftime, former Director of Athletics and three-time All-Ivy point guard Gary Walters ’67 was honored as Princeton’s inductee into the inaugural class of the Legends of Ivy League Basketball. … The Princeton-Yale Ivy men’s final, Sunday at noon, will be broadcast live on ESPN2 and WPRB 103.3 FM.