PHILADELPHIA, PA - Princeton’s hopes of an Ivy League title took a huge hit Saturday with a shocking 77-74 loss to Penn at the Palestra.
The men’s basketball team (11-3, 0-1 Ivy League) was expected to steamroll the Quakers (3-10, 1-0 Ivy League) and go into the finals break confident about its matchup with Harvard at the end of January. Penn came into the game with a scoring margin of -7.7, while Princeton’s was +7.5. But Ivy League basketball and the Princeton-Penn rivalry, in particular, have a strange way of throwing out the stats and rewarding hustle and aggression, which Penn had in excess.
“They took it right to us — all the credit goes to Penn,” head coach Mitch Henderson ’98 said. “We had some opportunities to win the game, but I think they were the better team tonight. I give credit to the way they prepared themselves, and I have to take a look at how I prepare my team because it really seems like we have a lot of work to do.”
Playing in front of a raucous Palestra crowd, Penn came out with guns blazing in the first half, outshooting the Tigers 56.7 percent to 40.6 percent and out-rebounding them 21-14. Penn center Darien Nelson-Henry, playing in his first game in a month following a concussion, harassed sophomore forward Hans Brase down low. Penn exploited an obvious mismatch, as Darien has three inches and 34 pounds on Brase and scored 13 points in just 13 minutes on the court in the first half.
The Tigers shot 2-11 from the three-point line, their worst first-half mark of the year, and were lucky to be down by just five, 43-38. The last time they played this badly in a first half was against Penn State, when they trailed by 12. Princeton was 2-2 on the year when trailing at the half, with both wins coming in overtime against Penn State and Lafayette.
Following this year’s trend, Princeton opened the second half slowly, and Penn’s lead expanded to 11 in just 90 seconds. The lead was still 10 with under 12 minutes to play before the Tigers finally started making shots and the Quakers started missing them. Much like the game against Penn State, senior forward Will Barrett and senior guard T.J. Bray took over and scored all 12 of Princeton’s points in a three-and-a-half-minute span. A Ben Hazel layup with 7:43 left gave the Tigers their first lead in almost 30 minutes at 61-60. Finally, things were going according to plan for the Tigers, who had closed out close games almost without fail this year.
But Penn yet again defied the trends and went on an 11-2 run in three minutes. Then freshman guard Spencer Weisz picked Penn’s pocket on three straight possessions, and all of a sudden the score was tied at 71 with just over two minutes to play. Penn ate up 90 seconds of clock on its next possession, grabbing two offensive rebounds but coming away with just a single point.
A missed three from Bray led to one of Princeton’s two offensive rebounds of the half by Barrett. He missed the layup with two Quakers draped all over him, and Penn came up with the ball in a scrum under the hoop. The strong Princeton contingent present was calling for either a foul against Barrett or a jump ball, which would have given the Tigers possession. They got neither, as a foul was called on Brase, sending Penn’s Jamal Lewis to the line at the other end. He made both, and it was do-or-die time for Princeton with 30 seconds left.
Bray brought the ball up the court and drew two defenders before giving Barrett an open three, which he drained. Still, Penn had the ball and would undoubtedly milk the clock down to the last few seconds. The Quakers’ senior captain and second-leading scorer of the season, Miles Jackson-Cartwright, got the ball unguarded at the middle of the three-point line and drew a foul, making both free throws.
After a couple of timeouts, some confusion and 0.8 seconds of game time, Princeton was ready to inbound the ball from the frontcourt. In a risky play, Bray lobbed the ball to Barrett right by the basket. The pass was good, but the ball slipped through Barrett’s hands and was grabbed by Penn’s forward Fran Dougherty, and the game was effectively over.
“We had tried that play a few times in practice and had gotten it, but the guy made a great play and got his finger in there just enough,” Bray said.
Bray led the way for the Tigers with 19 points and four assists. Brase and Koon added seven rebounds each, and Barrett had 11 second-half points. Still, Penn, despite being outshot in the second half and turning the ball over nine times to Princeton’s four, was outscored by just two points in the period. The reason: The Quakers went 13-16 from the charity stripe and had a 21-11 rebounding edge, which included eight offensive rebounds to Princeton’s nine defensive rebounds.
Dougherty and Nelson-Henry ended up with 34 points and 20 rebounds between them, and Tony Hicks dropped 18 for the Quakers.
“That’s crushing,” Henderson said after the game regarding his team’s rebounding woes. “We’ve been very good on the boards this year, but they crushed us. I think we’re scoring enough points to be successful, but we’ve got to defend.”
The Penn-Princeton rivalry is among college basketball’s longest and most heated. Princeton holds a 26-25 edge in Ivy League titles, but Penn holds a 124-105 overall series edge dating back to 1903 and is the only league team against which Princeton has a losing record.
Despite the sting of losing to a rival, the Tigers are likely more upset about the loss’s consequences. In the only league without a postseason tournament and with Harvard expected to cruise through most of its Ancient Eight opponents, this loss means Princeton has very little room for error throughout its next 13 Ivy games. A 12-2 league record has not won an outright title in 31 of 58 seasons. From here, Princeton must either split its games with Harvard, hope the Crimson drop another game and run the table against the rest of the league, or win both against Harvard, which would allow some breathing room. Regardless, the Tigers will have a lot to think about during the two-week finals break without games or official practices. Their next matchup is against Division III Kean University on Jan. 26 at Jadwin Gymnasium before they ship off to Boston to face you-know-who on Jan. 31.