PHILADELPHIA — Princeton men’s basketball was undoubtedly the best team in the Ivy League regular season, posting a perfect 14-0 run.
The Tigers had to prove it again in the inaugural Ivy League Tournament to earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament. Myles Stephens ’19 topped his scoring career-high from the semifinals the day before with 23 points to go with eight rebounds, and Stephen Cook ’17 added 15 points to help the top-seeded Tigers pull away from third-seeded Yale, 71-59, in the title game March 12 at the Palestra.
“It’s definitely a special moment,” said Stephens, the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament. “I grew up around the program. In high school, I came to all the games. In the beginning of the year, Coach said we’re getting a banner for the seniors, and that’s one of the most important things for us right now is these guys get to go to the tournament.”
The win gave Princeton (23-6) the Ivy League’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The Tigers, a No. 12 seed, will face No. 5-seed Notre Dame in the first round March 16 in Buffalo, N.Y.
Princeton 71, Yale 59
Ivy League Tournament Final
“We’ve never been there before,” said Cook, who was also named to the All-Tournament team. “The way we’re playing right now, I think it’s hard to stop us. If we keep playing as consistent on the offensive end and defensive end then whoever we end up with in the tournament could be in trouble.”
Princeton is making its first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2011. Its 23 wins is the most in a season since that year, and the most ever under sixth-year head coach Mitch Henderson ’98. Henderson guided his Tigers through an unbeaten Ivy season, and then had to top Penn and Yale each for the third time in back-to-back days to win the Ivy tournament.
“I heard from a lot of coaches that had won their league, friends of mine that have a tournament, and after we won yesterday, multiple guys said how hard it is to win the first-round game,” Henderson said. “That was true. I don’t know why it is. Until you’ve lived it, it’s hard to describe. Everyone thought we didn’t play well, but it has nothing to do with that. You’re the target, and it’s hard to work against that mentally. This feels really good.”
Stephens, who averaged 22 points and 9 rebounds per game in the two games, produced two of the top performances of his career at the perfect time. He led Princeton in scoring and rebounding both nights, and the Ivy Defensive Player of the Year was terrific at the other end as well. He has been a particularly difficult matchup for Yale. He came into Sunday’s final averaging 19.5 points per game in the teams’ first two meetings.
“He’s a silent assassin,” said Yale head coach James Jones. “He works really hard. He’s a very difficult matchup. The play him at the 4, and we play a bigger lineup so he’s going to be quicker than the guys we have. And when you play a smaller guy against him, he goes inside. He’s a very versatile player and has developed game where he can score multiple ways.”
Stephens delivered Princeton a basket whenever it needed one, sent a message with a huge block midway through the first half, and showed his ability to explode offensively with 10 points in the first five minutes of the second half when the Tigers took control.
“Myles is quietly one of the biggest forces in the league,” Henderson said. “Part of our success was Myles playing more minutes and his ability to defend. He brings a lot to the table. When he’s going, we’re very good.”
Princeton never allowed the Bulldogs to make a significant run in the second half as they eased away for the historic win. Yale never got closer than nine points after Spencer Weisz ’17 came up with a steal and layup to make it 60-49. Though he shot just 3-for-11, his other contributions kept him on the court. Weisz finished with eight assists and just two turnovers.
“I just try to stay level,” Weisz said. “I have to be a leader on the team. Despite having a lot of experience on the floor, I try to be an extension of Coach. Whether the shots are falling or not, I have to continue to communicate Coach’s message to the guys and stay even keeled.”
Stephens had eight points and Cook had seven points in the first half. Yale outrebounded Princeton, 19-16, in the first half. The Tigers shot 44 percent, only slightly better than they had in their semifinal win over Penn, to muster a 31-29 lead. Princeton picked up steam during the first half. They closed the half on a 15-6 run after they faced their largest deficit of the game, 23-16, with 7:05 left in the first half.
“We’ve won in so many different ways,” Cook said. “And we won so many different ways in this building alone. As a team, we never think we’re out of it. We’ve faced a lot of adversity this year, but we were able to go 14-0. Having that history, we always have the confidence we can come back.”
After Yale opened the second half with a 3-pointer to take a one-point, 32-31, Princeton answered with a 10-2 run. Stephens made two free throws that would give Princeton the lead for good, 33-32. Cook found Stephens for a layup to follow, and Cook and Devin Cannady ’19 hit 3-pointers for a 41-34 lead that slowly kept growing. Cannady scored in double figures for the second straight night with 13 points. Cannady made three of his first four 3-point attempts one night after going 1-for-8 from the floor and 0-for-2 from 3-point range.
A Yale 3-pointer trimmed the advantage to 44-39 before an 8-2 Tigers run highlighted by 3-pointers from Stephens and Cannady opened a 52-41 lead.
“My teammates put me in position to win,” Stephens said. “They have confidence in me. I have confidence in them. I’m just here to make plays on the offensive end and defensive end and come away with the win.”
After Yale edged into the Princeton lead temporarily, the Tigers used back-to-back 3-pointers from Cook and Will Gladson ’20 to open a 58-45 advantage. Gladson had five points and three steals off the bench.
Stephens matched his career-high set the night before with a 3-pointer when he pushed his scoring total to 21 and gave Princeton a 63-49 lead with 5:28 left.
“Offensively, we try to take advantage of mismatches, Spencer and Steve also and Amir [Bell ’18],” Stephens said. “We put each other in positions to make plays, and my teammates did a good job of that, whether it was posting up or driving to the rim and kicking out or finishing at the rim, I think we really try to take advantage of that and that helped us win this weekend.”
Princeton made 7-of-14 3-pointers in the second half. The Tigers held Yale 0-for-5 on field goals over the final 7:22.
Now the Tigers shift focus from beating the Ivy League to representing it in the NCAA tournament. In 2011 they fell, 57-55, to Kentucky in the first round.
“We’re hungry,” Weisz said. “We’re not satisfied with just going to the tournament. We’ve had goals. We’ve accomplished two of them. We want to make a push to go deep into the tournament. Being there is not good enough for us. We want to get a few wins.”
The Ivy League representative has won four NCAA games since 2010. Last year, Yale won its first-round game.
“We’ve won in a variety of different ways,” Henderson said. “We get an opportunity to play on a neutral court. This experience this weekend made us a lot better team. I’m really fired up about the opportunity we have. It could end really quickly, and the guys know that, but they’re playing with a fearlessness that I think you need for the tournament.”