On Friday night, Brendan Connolly hardly left the bench as the Princeton University men’s basketball team topped visiting Cornell 76-59.
The 6’11, 255-pound senior center played one minute and had only a foul to show for his limited appearance.
A day later, though, Connolly played a critical role off the bench as Princeton held off a gritty Columbia team in posting a 72-66 win before 3,180 at Jadwin Gym.
Coming through down the stretch against the Lions, Connolly contributed four points, a rebound, and a blocked shot in 15 minutes of action as he helped Princeton improve to 10-7 overall and 3-0 Ivy League.
Connolly’s two hoops helped swing the game in Princeton’s favor. With just over eight minutes left in regulation, he hit a reverse layup to give the Tigers a 54-52 lead. Then with 1:56 remaining, he lofted a hook shot from 12 feet out to put Princeton up 66-61.
Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson had a feeling that Connolly could excel against Columbia based on favorable matchups against Lions’ centers Mark Cisco and Cory Osetkowski.
“I think it was a good game for him,” said Henderson. “I thought that it was a better game with Mark Cisco. I think Osetkowski was a big factor tonight; he finished with seven but he had a lot of low touches and Brendan really changed that for us. He is just such a big defensive presence for us.”
Henderson liked the way that Connolly made an impact at both ends of the court.
“Brendan is highly skilled offensively; I think when given the opportunity, he came through for us big tonight,” said Henderson of the Brentwood, Tenn. native who is averaging 4.3 points and 2.6 rebounds a game this season.
“I thought he did a really nice job changing the tone. [Steven] Frankoski got loose and Brendan switched up on what could have been a 3 from the corner and that was a huge defensive switch for us. He plays a very important role.”
Although Connolly’s role had lessened over the last month as he went from a starter to a reserve who averaged six minutes a game in his previous four appearances before Saturday, he wasn’t hanging his head.
“I am in here everyday with the guys like I should be,” said Connolly. “I just look for the opportunities when given and I will take what I can get with those.”
Connolly took everyone by surprise with his hook shot, which Henderson referred to as a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar move. “It just felt right,” said Connolly when asked about the shot.
Things were feeling right for Princeton as it hit six straight three-pointers and jumped out to a 27-13 lead, looking like it was going to run the Lions out of the gym.
“We were hot, no doubt about it,” said Henderson. “You just shut up when you are a coach and let them do their thing.
But then Columbia started doing its thing, going on a 23-10 run to trail by just 37-36 at the half.
“I really respect the way Columbia plays,” said Henderson. “That’s a 1-3 team in our league. They have had a tough start here but they don’t play any games that aren’t close. They are young, they are learning how to win and they are going to get there. They play a nice style of ball with some inside presence and some really good shooters on the perimeter. It is a tough team to play.”
Princeton junior guard T.J. Bray showed his toughness when he drained a three-pointer with the shot clock winding down and less than three minutes left in the second half to give the Tigers a 64-59 lead.
“They kind of doubled down on Ian a little too hard with the clock ending and Ian [Hummer] made a great kick out to me,” said Bray, recalling the shot.
“I saw the guy coming so I pump-faked and just shot it and let it fly and luckily it went in.”
A lot of three-pointers went in for Princeton on Saturday as they went 8-of-11 from long distance.
“We shoot everyday in practice and get a ton of shots up,” said Bray, who scored a game-high 17 points, hitting all three of his three-point attempts on the evening.
“It is starting to come. They are coming in the flow of the offense more which is good. There is a lot of inside-out stuff and when you are stepping into shots, they are a lot easier to make.”
Henderson liked the way his squad stepped up when pushed by Columbia.
“We are thrilled; I am very happy,” said Henderson, whose team hosts Brown (8-10 overall, 2-2 Ivy) on February 8 and Yale (7-14 overall, 1-3 Ivy) the next night.
“This is really an important win for our program. I am just really proud of our guys. When you are home, you have to win those games in the league. We can get so much better; I think there is improvement right in front of our eyes right now which I am really happy about.”
In Connolly’s view, having battle-tested guys on the court in crunch time was an important factor in the win for the Tigers.
“Looking around, none of the guys on the floor were afraid of the moment at all,” said Connolly.
“That is a big thing that all of my coaches have talked about over the four years and it is something we have done pretty well. They had some familiar faces and guys we have seen a lot with [Brian] Barbour and Cisco but we were ready for it and we responded to it. I think everyone felt pretty ready for everything they were throwing at us.”
And Connolly proved ready to contribute on Saturday when his number was called.