The halftime score was 35-23, and the men’s basketball team was being outshot, outrebounded and outplayed. When the Tigers (8-1) came out of the gates slowly in the second half to go down 41-23 with a full 17 minutes left, Princeton fans had plenty of reason to give up. After all, Princeton was shooting just 29 percent from the floor including an abysmal 15.4 percent from behind the arc. Penn State (8-4) was dominating the paint, shooting 60 percent from inside and outrebounding the Tigers 24-9.
“I’ll be honest, with 10 minutes left, I was thinking about how we were going to repair ourselves,” head coach Mitch Henderson ’98 said after the game. “They were just controlling the game in every way.”
But as time ran out, Princeton began sinking shots, and Penn State cooled off. With 6:18 left in regulation, the score sat at 60-42. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the tide turned dramatically. A minute later, the score was 60-50 after a couple quick threes and senior guard T.J. Bray’s first and only field goal of the game. A Penn State time-out stopped the run, and two minutes later the Nittany Lions found themselves up 64-52 with barely three minutes to play.
Then senior forward Will Barrett caught fire. After unofficially leading the NCAA in three-point shooting last season, he had gone cold the last five games, shooting just 21.7 percent from behind the arc. It was about time he turned up. Three of the next four Princeton possessions ended with threes from Barrett assisted by Bray. Meanwhile, the Nittany Lions could not buy a basket and turned the ball over on consecutive possessions. They started working the clock down and trading fouls.
With 16 seconds left and Princeton down two, Bray stepped to the line for his second foul shot. He missed, and Travis Ross of Penn State rebounded right on the baseline, one of his game-high 12 boards. As he fell out of bounds, Ross threw the ball back toward his teammates, but it ended up right in the hands of freshman guard Spencer Weisz, who was immediately fouled and sent to the line with the game in his hands. He made both, and Penn State raced to the other end for a chance at a game-winning shot. They settled for an off-balance three, which missed and sent the game to overtime tied at 66. Princeton had just outscored the Nittany Lions 24-6 over the last 6:18, shooting five of six from three. Penn State shot just one of seven and committed four turnovers.
Princeton jumped out to a five-point lead in the overtime when Barrett sunk his sixth trey of the game with 3:26 left. The two teams went back and forth, with Princeton scoring almost entirely on free throws. Penn State twice brought the lead down to one in the last 11 seconds but missed a free throw that would have tied the game. Bray came up with the clutch rebound, one of his team-high six, and a quick foul sent him to the line with three seconds left. He missed the second, leaving the door open for the Nittany Lions, but their last-second shot missed, giving the Tigers an 81-79 victory.
“We just wanted to keep battling and chip away at that lead bit by bit. We started making shots and that’s huge — it’s kind of contagious,” Bray said. “Will had however many in a row there, and once they start going down it gets a little easier.”
It was not pretty, as Princeton shot just 41.9 percent overall and 31.3 percent from behind the arc. Penn State grabbed twice as many rebounds and shot 50 percent from the floor for the game. What ultimately did the Nittany Lions in was their turnovers, as they coughed up 20 to Princeton’s 10.
Barrett led the way for the Tigers with 24 points in just 30 minutes of court time, matching his career high. Nineteen of those came in the last 9:22 of regulation, echoing Bray’s 15 in the last 8:43 on Wednesday at Rutgers. Despite not scoring for the first 34 minutes of the game, Bray ended up with 11 points and 13 assists, the latter being a single-game school record. He now averages 7.2 assists/game, which would have placed him tied for fifth in Division I if he had not missed the first three games due to injury.
The frontcourt duo of D.J. Newbill and Tim Frazier led Penn State with 24 points each and took over 60 percent of the team’s total shots.
At 8-1 with two away wins against top-100 RPI teams, the Tigers are off to a historically good start. Only three Princeton teams have started a season 8-1 since Ivy League play began in 1956. The 1966-67 team ended up 25-3, 13-1 in the Ivy League and ranked 5th in the country. The 1990-91 team finished 24-3 — undefeated in the league and ranked 18th. And most recently, the 1997-98 Tigers — featuring Henderson as captain — went 27-2, won every league game and reached 8th in the polls. Only time will tell if these Tigers can walk the same path.
Though erratic at times, Princeton has performed well in the clutch. The Tigers have won four of their five games decided by five points or fewer, and in their one loss, they stormed back from 11 down with six minutes to play at Butler, arguably their toughest opponent thus far.
Next up for the Tigers is a holiday tournament in Las Vegas from Dec. 20-21. They will face Pacific the first day and Portland the second. The Pacific game in particular looks to be a tough matchup as the Tigers from the West coast are 8-1 themselves and 35th in the RPI rankings.