In a play symbolic of Princeton’s season, sophomore forward Hans Brase missed a dunk with eight minutes left and the Tigers (15-8 overall, 3-6 Ivy League) trailing Harvard by one. The Crimson (22-4, 9-1) took the ball right up the court and guard Brandyn Curry hit a tide-turning three. Moments later they went up six on forward Steve Mondou-Missi’s authoritative dunk and Princeton never recovered.
It was a weekend of dreadful shooting from the floor for the Tigers, though with two completely different outcomes. Friday night saw Princeton shoot 36.5 percent, but the Tigers hit 20 free throws and got revenge against Dartmouth, 67-57. The team shot just 34 percent overall the next night, and with an atrocious performance from the line, fell to Harvard 59-47.
Neither team could buy a bucket in the first half Friday night as Princeton and Dartmouth (9-15, 2-8) combined for a mere 14 field goals. Luckily for the Tigers, five of their seven were from distance, and a late 14-1 run made it a 31-19 halftime lead. Brase had 10 at the break, his fourth double-digit first half performance in the last eight games. Princeton still struggled to find its rhythm out of the break, as usual, as Dartmouth rattled off an 8-0 run with two old-fashioned three-point plays. The lead shrunk to eight after forward Wesley Dickinson converted yet another with a foul with 10 minutes left. At last Princeton’s shots began falling, with senior guards Jimmy Sherburne and Ben Hazel combining for 12 point down the stretch as the lead ballooned to 19 and head coach Mitch Henderson ’98 put in the subs.
“It’s a nice win for us. We had three turnovers in the first half and we executed the game plan, which was to go to the rim and be aggressive,” Henderson said. “I’ve been really happy about the mental approach from the guys. We’ve asked them to recover from some really gut-wrenching losses and they have all the way down the line.”
The Tigers turned in their best rebounding performance against a Division I school in over two months with 41 boards to Dartmouth’s 34. That and the aforementioned free throw shooting made this game a blowout despite such poor overall shooting. Freshman forward Spencer Weisz turned in his second career double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds and was named player of the game. Sherburne and Hazel also reached double figures for the first time since being pulled from the starting lineup. Dickinson and forward Connor Boehm were the only Big Green players to reach 10 points. Senior guard and captain T.J. Bray was unusually quiet on the night with a season-low seven points on one-of-four shooting. He did contribute seven assists, his highest total in over three months.
Jadwin Gymnasium was packed for the Harvard game, as the Princeton faithful tried to help keep their team’s 24-year home win streak against the Crimson alive. The game started well enough for the Tigers, as they jumped out to a 21-9 lead 12 minutes in on four of eight three-point shooting. Harvard could not get anything to drop, making just four of their first 16 shots. The momentum shifted in the Crimson’s favor a few minutes later, and the lead was quickly cut to three before Weisz’s tough putback made it 29-24 at the half. Princeton shot 40 percent for the half to Harvard’s 34.6 percent and also held a 20-15 rebounding advantage. Pete Carril, on hand to honor athletic director Gary Walters ’67 before the game, was no doubt proud of Princeton’s defensive effort thus far against the team leading the Ivy League in scoring.
But it would be only temporary, as Harvard roared back in the second half and showed everyone why they are the best Ivy League team. The Crimson led the Tigers in pretty much every statistical category in the second half as Princeton turned in its worst offensive half of the season. Harvard took the lead for good with 12 minutes to play and a 10-0 run with five minutes left iced it.
“Defensively, we were sharp in the first half. [In the second half] they made a couple huge shots, so I don’t think it was a total lack of defensive presence,” Henderson said. “But once those shots go in, you’ve got to adjust and we didn’t do a good job of that. Our inability to score on offense also contributed to some easy runouts for them.”
That inability to score was on full display in the second half, as Princeton managed just 18 points on pitiful 26.1 percent shooting from the floor. They also coughed up eight turnovers and could only manage 13 rebounds in the half. Harvard, meanwhile, shot 54.2 percent, went six of seven from the line and grabbed 17 rebounds to close out the game. Bray at least turned in a good game with 17 points and six rebounds, although he made just two of seven inside the arc, an unusually bad performance for the nation’s leading guard in two-point field goal percentage. Weisz had 12 points, his third-straight contest with double figures, and added seven rebounds. Most surprising was the lack of production from Princeton’s only two players to start every game this year, Brase and senior forward Will Barrett. Both average around 11 points a game, but combined for one of 15 in this contest. Barrett was kept scoreless for the first time in exactly a year and Brase committed four turnovers while failing to pull in any rebounds.
“We got lazy on offense and defense,” said Bray. “We had a few backdoor layups in the first half that opened the game for us and we weren’t able to get those in the second half. Defensively, they went to a little more ball screen action and we didn’t handle that well. Our weak side help wasn’t where it needed to be tonight and that was the key to the game.”
Harvard, meanwhile, got subpar production from a few of its starters, including captain Laurent Rivard’s goose egg in the scoring column and a mere seven from leading scorer Wesley Saunders. It’s a testament to the Crimson’s depth that they can dominate a game this thoroughly while relying on a sophomore and a bench player. Reigning Ivy League Rookie of the Year Siyani Chambers scored 11 in the second half and supplied eight assists, while Curry tied Bray with 17 points. Mondou-Missi was all over the Tigers with 11 points, ten boards, four blocks and multiple dominating dunks.
Princeton will have a chance to greatly affect the Ivy League standings when Yale and Brown visit next weekend. Yale is tied with Harvard atop the tables and Brown sits in third place. While this season hasn’t turned out quite the way the Tigers would have hoped, consider this: if you were to strategically give them 15 total points in regulation across the five close league losses, they’d be 8-1 in conference and a half game out of first. Much of the talk after the Dartmouth game revolved around the team’s attitude towards these losses and the rest of the season.
“I think a lot of it is the tradition of this program. From the time I’ve been here, the senior class has always set the standard and I don’t want to be part of the first senior class to not do that for us,” Sherburne said, regarding the team’s continued tenacity with seemingly nothing to play for. “It’s about keeping everything going and setting it up for these guys, so when they have the opportunity to win, they know how to get it done.”
“We’re playing for the seniors,” Weisz said. “They bring it every day in practice and it’s our responsibility to play for them and for the alumni. We’re not a quitting team … We have plenty of basketball left.”