NEW HAVEN, Conn.—Halfway through the Princeton men’s basketball team’s first-round game in the Ivy League Tournament, the story looked disappointingly familiar. The No. 3-seed Tigers trailed No. 2-seed Yale, 46-34 — eerily familiar to their previous game, an 81-59 defeat at Jadwin Gym to close the regular season, in which those same Bulldogs led nearly wire-to-wire.
But the Tigers rewrote the script shortly after halftime, scoring 15 straight points to take a surprising lead. Princeton held a small advantage for most of the second half, but Yale came back down the stretch, going ahead for good on a 3-pointer with 39 seconds remaining. The Bulldogs ultimately won 83-77, finishing the Tigers’ season with a 16-12 record.
The playoff defeat was a truly bittersweet ending for Princeton. After taking championship hopes into the beginning of March, they lost their final four games, and their season was marred by various injuries and absences. (Ryan Schwieger ’21 did not play in the postseason due to a concussion he had suffered earlier in the month; Devin Cannady ’19 left the team and the University late in the season for personal reasons.) But on the other hand, Princeton hit full stride during Saturday’s second half, putting a positive coda on the season even when its comeback fell short.
“We’ve been fighting hard all season to have a half like we had in the second half,” head coach Mitch Henderson ’98 said. “It didn’t come out the way we wanted, but we put ourselves in a position to win.”
Princeton had the Ivy League’s top defense in conference play, but its offense often struggled — so it was doubly surprising that the Tigers’ comeback came through a scoring explosion. (Saturday’s 77 points tied their second-highest against an Ivy opponent all season.) Early in the second half, Jerome Desrosiers ’21 and Ethan Wright ’22 kicked off Princeton’s run with back-to-back 3-pointers, and Myles Stephens ’19 followed with five straight points. Point guard Jaelin Llewellyn ’22 then scored on a spinning floater to give the Tigers the lead, erasing a double-digit deficit in less than five minutes.
From there, a back-and-forth rhythm returned, but it tilted in Princeton’s favor: A high-arching 3-pointer from Sebastian Much ’21 broke a tie; a 3-point play by Llewellyn extended the lead; and a pull-up 3-pointer from Llewellyn gave the Tigers a 66-60 edge with six minutes left. Llewellyn, a top-100 recruit in his class, had one of his best performances to date, finishing with 17 points and no turnovers while defending tough players well.
Stephens — who was the Most Outstanding Player of the 2017 tournament, when Princeton beat Yale in the finals to earn an NCAA bid — once again raised his game in the playoffs, scoring nine of his 13 points in the second half. More importantly, his defense quieted Yale’s Miye Oni, who was named the Ivy League Player of the Year earlier this week. But Stephens uncharacteristically spent most of the game in foul trouble, and he fouled out with three minutes left and the Tigers nursing a five-point lead, marking another turning point.
Stephens’ fifth foul, and a couple of his earlier ones, were debatable whistles on light contact. “I didn’t agree with [the calls], but it’s the way that the game goes,” said Stephens, who had fouled out only once in the last three seasons (coincidentally, also at Yale this February). “No game is going to be perfect. They were on me and my team, so of course I’m going to say I disagree with the calls, but it is what it is and we have to play through it.”
With Stephens, a first-team All-Ivy honoree as a senior, watching from the bench, Oni took over, slicing through Princeton’s defense for six straight points and then assisting two more to take the lead. Richmond Aririguzoh ’20 tied the game with two free throws in the final minute, but Yale’s Blake Reynolds hit a wide-open 3-pointer from the top of the key to put the hosts ahead for good.
Aririguzoh, a second-team All-Ivy honoree this season, led the Tigers with 24 points on 8-11 shooting; 14 of those came in the first half, keeping the Tigers within striking distance.
It was a de facto road game for Princeton, as this year’s tournament was held at Yale’s John J. Lee Amphitheater. Earlier this month, the league announced a rotation that will send the event to all eight Ivy League schools. Harvard will host next year’s tournament, followed by Princeton in 2021.
Henderson said after the game that Princeton would not seek an opportunity to play in any other postseason tournament, such as the College Basketball Invitational or the ColegeInsider.com Tournament. For Stephens and the other seniors, that marks the end of their careers. The underclassmen, however, can take Saturday’s experience into the offseason.
“Watching the young guys go out there and compete, I was actually really confident in them,” Stephens said of being on the bench in crunch time. “With three freshmen, a sophomore, and Richmond in the game, and they were holding their own, making shots, making plays.”