Heading into the final weekend of Ivy play, the Princeton men’s basketball team controlled its own destiny. With victories in the final three games — a difficult road stretch at Columbia, conference-leader Cornell, and Penn — the Tigers could, at the least, share the Ivy League title.
Those hopes were erased March 6 in Morningside Heights as Columbia extinguished Princeton’s dream with a 58–44 victory. Sharp-shooting Columbia senior K.J. Matsui scored 17 points, including five shots from outside the three-point arc. His back-to-back three-pointers turned a tenuous five-point Columbia lead into an 11-point cushion with 6:15 remaining.
“We weren’t focused [on Matsui],” coach Sydney Johnson ’97 said. “I felt like he is a player that we can limit, and he has been held in check in the past, but we just weren’t focused enough to do it.”
Princeton rebounded from its unfocused play at Columbia with a solid, determined effort at Cornell. Unfortunately, the result was the same.
The Big Red completed an undefeated home schedule with a 60–51 win over the Tigers. Princeton was within six points with less than a minute to go, but Cornell held off the Tigers from the free-throw line. Princeton freshmen Douglas Davis and Patrick Saunders scored 16 and 13 points, respectively.
To conclude the season, Princeton headed to the Palestra, the site of many unsatisfactory memories from Johnson’s stellar playing career. (He was 1–3 in the arena.) For the first time in five years, Princeton went into the Palestra and came away with a victory.
“I told the guys in the locker room, I cried like a baby when I lost here and I lost here three times — I shed a lot of tears,” an emotional Johnson said after his first win over Penn as a coach. “To win in the Palestra, for a young man who wears orange and black, I can’t put it into words. ... If I try, I’ll lose it.”
It was an arduous, frustrating, and ultimately rewarding conclusion to a season that saw the Tigers improve to 8–6 in Ivy games (tied for second place with Yale) and 13–14 overall. Neither team led by more than six points over the course of the game.
With Princeton trailing by a point in the final minute, Marcus Schroeder ’10 drove down the baseline, leaped in the air above the boundary, and passed to Saunders ’12 in the opposite corner with the shot clock down to single digits. Saunders calmly dished to his left to Dan Mavraides ’11, who took a quick first step into the paint, attacked the rim, and was fouled by Penn’s Jack Eggleston.
Mavraides made both free throws — and two others in the final 30 seconds — to lead the Tigers past Penn, 59-56. He finished with a game-high 17 points.
Afterward, Johnson admitted the win was bittersweet. “We had a chance to play for a championship and it slipped away from us quite early in our weekend,” he said. “But Princeton beat Penn today in basketball, and for me it is hard to be disappointed with that.”
Jon Solomon is the editor of princetonbasketball.com.