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Tigers' title hopes diminished with two road losses

The men’s basketball team suffered two Ivy League defeats over the weekend, effectively eliminating the already-small chance they had at winning the conference.  Friday night saw Princeton (12-5 overall, 0-3 Ivy League) fall 82-76 at Harvard (18-3, 4-0). Playing at Dartmouth (9-9, 2-2) the following night, the Tigers forced overtime before losing 78-69.  Princeton’s defensive woes continued as both opponents shot greater than 50 percent from the field, including more than 40 percent from three, and outrebounded the Tigers.

Princeton ended its finals break with a home matchup last Sunday versus Division III Kean College. The Tigers jumped out to an early 19-2 lead and never looked back, coasting to an 84-54 victory. Just about every player on the roster saw action as nobody played more than 25 minutes. Senior guard T.J. Bray, senior forward Will Barrett and freshman forward Spencer Weisz led the way with 15 points each. Princeton shot the ball 62 times from the field, the most in regulation since they played Goucher, another Division III opponent, four years ago. Even more impressive were the 43 attempted three-pointers, a mark that set the school record for three-point attempts in regulation. The Tigers also pulled in 45 rebounds and recorded seven blocks, both the most since last year’s game against Division III TCNJ.

“Coach Carril reiterated to me and the staff how important this game is for us,” said Coach Mitch Henderson ’98. “Exams here can do funny things to you and [this game] is just a way of reminding our guys you got to get the blood and competitive juices flowing a little bit.”

Princeton then traveled to Cambridge to face Harvard in the first of two critical matchups against the three-time reigning conference champs. Princeton hung right with Harvard in the first half, shooting a blazing 61 percent from the field including five of nine from beyond the arc. Sophomore forward Hans Brase scored the team’s first 11 points and had 18 at the half on seven-of-nine shooting. But the Tigers also turned the ball over 10 times, matching their season average, and allowed the Crimson six offensive rebounds. This meant that Harvard got six more shots than the Tigers, which, combined with Princeton’s paradoxically abysmal 2-8 from the line, resulted in a 36-35 Crimson lead at the half. Princeton’s shooting cooled off in the second half as Harvard built up a 63-48 advantage with 9:40 left.

“I thought the key to the game was the first four minutes of the second half,” Henderson said afterwards. “Saunders took over and kind of changed the game and we let up a couple huge threes.”

It was still an 11-point lead with 2:44 to play when, as usual, the senior duo of Bray and Barrett took over. A three from Bray with under a minute to play got the deficit to four, but Princeton missed three shots on their ensuing possession and the game was all but over. Bray led the way for the Tigers with 12 of the team’s last 16 points en route to a career- and game-high 26 on a season best nine-of-13 shooting. Brase also recorded a career high 20 points and added seven rebounds. Wesley Saunders had a fantastic outing for the Crimson, leading them in points, rebounds and assists with 24, 9 and 7.

“I didn’t want to start this way but you just try to win every game.  You can’t look ahead to the next night,” Bray said. “Now we’re 0-2 and we’ve got to try and claw our way out of it.”

The loss to Harvard was bad enough, but very much expected as the Tigers were 7.5 point underdogs going in. The loss to Dartmouth, though, was about as shocking as the loss to Penn, another team Princeton was expected to beat by about eight points. Henderson opted for a different starting lineup featuring four forwards. Freshman forward Steven Cook got the first start of his career and freshman guard Spencer Weisz started for the first time since Bray sat out against Fairleigh Dickinson. Senior guard Jimmy Sherburne came off the bench for the first time all season and saw less than a minute on the court, while junior forward Denton Koon saw his second-fewest minutes of the season with 12. Meanwhile, senior guard Chris Clement played 26 minutes, the second-most of his season.

The game was close for the entirety of regulation, as Dartmouth never built more than a six point lead. Barrett’s layup and foul shot with 18 seconds left tied the game at 63 and aggressive defense sent the game to overtime. Everything fell apart in overtime as Princeton committed three turnovers and six fouls, and made just two buckets. Dartmouth shot 11-of-12 from the line in the extra period, putting the game out of reach with 30 seconds left following a technical foul.

“Dartmouth’s playing really well,” Henderson said. “They’re playing like a team and rooting like hell for each other.  They beat us.”

There were still some positives to the game. For the last four-and-a-half minutes of regulation, Princeton played some of its most aggressive defense of the year, double-teaming the ball on every possession. They forced four Dartmouth turnovers and erased a six-point deficit during that span. Barrett dropped a career high 28 points, a mark not bettered by a Princeton player since Kareem Maddox ’11 put up 31 against Tulsa in December 2010.

“I just like to take what comes to me and they were giving me open shots so I was taking them. My shot felt great today,” Barrett said.

Bray added 16 and, following the Harvard game, has now played in 75 percent of the team’s games, making him officially eligible for the statistics leaderboards. He appears among the NCAA’s top-20 in assists per game, as well as the more complex categories of effective field goal percentage, offensive rating and win shares per 40 minutes.

The Ivy League is the only conference without a postseason tournament and thus awards its NCAA bid to the regular season champion. This results in an unmatched level of competition and tenacity in the gauntlet pundits have dubbed the “fourteen game tournament”. At 0-3, Princeton is already three-and-a-half games behind undefeated Harvard, a deficit TeamRankings.com says there is a .7 percent chance of overcoming.

“We’ve got to take a look at everything and try to figure things out,” Henderson said after the Dartmouth loss. “We continue to put ourselves in a really bad hole so we’ve got a lot of work to do. There’s still a lot of basketball left to play.”

Up next are games against Columbia and Cornell, the first two home matchups in league play and the first home matchups in two months that all students will actually be on campus for. This weekend is sure to go better than the last as Princeton has lost just one home Ivy League contest in the last three seasons and Cornell has yet to beat a Division I opponent this year.

 

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