Senior guard and captain T.J. Bray got the ball with 4.4 seconds left near midcourt and made one final drive to the basket to try and lift the Tigers over the Bulldogs. In a play symbolic of Princeton’s (14-7 overall, 2-5 Ivy League) Ivy League performance, he got all the way into the paint, before fumbling the ball out of bounds. Yale (13-9, 7-1) won 66-65 in overtime, ending any miracle Ivy League title runs the team may have dreamed of the night before after escaping Brown with a 69-65 victory.
Princeton’s victory over the Bears (13-9, 5-3) was the team’s finest in 2014, and their first win in a tight game since they defeated Liberty 80-74 on Jan. 4. For only the third time all season, and the first since the miracle in State College, the team won after trailing at the half. In some ways it was a very uncharacteristic win. The team sank only three from behind the arc, well below their season average of nearly ten. They had a negative turnover differential, but also out-rebounded Brown by nine, and recorded five blocks. Princeton was the more aggressive and athletic team, a rarity in 2014.
“I’m proud of our guys,” assistant coach Brian Earl ’99 said. “It’s a game down the stretch that we haven’t won the past couple weeks. It was looking that way in the beginning, but in the second half, shots started falling. It reminded me of about two months ago when we were winning these games.”
The Tigers went on a 10-0 run lasting nearly six minutes, which included a four minute scoreless stretch for both teams. Up nine with six minutes to play, Princeton held on as Bray scored 11 of their last 13 points. The Tigers shot 51.9 percent from the field, including a red hot 67.6 percent inside the arc. Bray scored a career-high 26 points to go with six rebounds and five assists. He outdueled Brown’s McGonagill, who had 16, moving past him into the league scoring average lead. Freshman forward Pete Miller, whom Earl compared to former Ivy League Player of the Year Kareem Maddox ’11, pulled in seven rebounds in 19 minutes and swatted four shots. Forwards Steven Cook, a freshman, and Will Barrett, a senior, each had 10 points.
The game against Yale started on a cold streak for both teams, as they combined to miss the first 13 shots. It was a one point game with under three minutes left in the first half, before four Yale turnovers turned into 10-0 Princeton run and a 30-19 halftime score. Yale committed an appalling 13 turnovers in the half, leading to 15 Princeton points, and shot just 38.1 percent from the field. The Tigers made only eight shots, same as the Bulldogs, but four were from distance and an additional ten points came from free throws.
In the second half, Princeton’s shooting failed to improve, and Yale stopped turning the ball over. All of a sudden the lead was down to one with over 12 minutes to play. The game went back and forth from there until the Elis built a five-point lead with a minute to play. A couple of Bray free throws and another Yale turnover got Princeton the ball back with a chance to tie. A Bray miss ended up getting knocked out of bounds and the ball stayed with the Tigers. The inbounds went to Barrett in three-point territory, but he drove around his defender and picked up an old-fashioned three-point play. Princeton survived Yale’s last possession and the Tigers faced their second overtime in league play and fourth of the year.
No team took more than a three-point lead, and it was Bray with eight of the team’s nine points that gave them that advantage with 46 seconds to play. A couple free throws made it a one-point game and put the ball in Bray’s hands with a mere six-second shot clock-game clock difference. Instead of playing it safe, he saw senior guard Chris Clement open under the basket. The pass sailed high, as Bray committed a rare turnover. Princeton had three chances to grab the ball and end the game, but could not capitalize on Yale guard Armani Cotton falling down with the ball, Jesse Pritchard airballing a three or Justin Sears getting muffed. Sears put in the easy layup with 4.4 seconds left and the Bulldogs won.
Princeton improved its shooting in the second half and overtime, but could only manage one-of-10 from three. Yale shot 47 percent over the same span, committed only three turnovers and out-rebounded the Tigers by six. Bray was, of course, the team’s leading scorer with 20 and added team-highs of seven boards and three steals, but also coughed up seven turnovers, more than double his previous season-high. Barrett and freshman forward Spencer Weisz joined him as double-digit scorers. Sears led Yale with 17 points and Cotton pulled in 11 rebounds.
“He’s one of the best I’ve ever seen,” Earl said after the Brown game, referring to Bray. “He does everything. He didn’t come in a good shooter, but now he is, he grabs rebounds, plays physical. He’s the best around.”
Princeton has been a different team these last five games, both literally and figuratively. Head coach Mitch Henderson ’98 has settled into a four forward starting lineup featuring Weisz, Barrett, freshman Steven Cook, and sophomore Hans Brase. The defense has found its rhythm, allowing no more than 65 points in regulation since Harvard torched them for 82. No team has shot better than 43.4 percent against the Tigers in the last four games and they have forced nearly 14 turnovers per game. Princeton has shot slightly better overall these last five games, but have shot less from three, where they have struggled lately. The team has also seen its assist totals shrink, averaging barely 10 a game the last two weeks after putting up more than 15 the rest of the season. The Tigers are also back to their careful selves, allowing 11 turnovers per game after a 33-turnover weekend at Harvard and Dartmouth.
Unfortunately, none of these changes have helped the Tigers pull out close victories. Princeton was virtually unbeatable in close games out of conference, winning six of seven decided by six points or less. Since then, the team is one for six. Most coaches would say the Tigers all of a sudden lack the cool heads and clutch shooting they had earlier, but statisticians argue that winning close games comes down to luck and Princeton is suffering from the law of large numbers. Either way, the team will need to bring all the luck and nerves it can manage to keep the 24-year home win streak against Harvard alive. Princeton squares off against Dartmouth Friday night before the main event takes place Saturday.