Coming into last weekend, the Princeton University men’s basketball team controlled its own destiny.
Sitting in first place in the Ivy League standings with a one-game edge on second-place Harvard in the loss column, Princeton needed to post wins over Yale and Brown over the weekend and then finish the deal with a victory at Penn in the regular season finale on March 12 to clinch the outright league title and a berth in the upcoming NCAA tournament.
On Friday, though, Princeton couldn’t slow down Yale as the Bulldogs hit 60.5 percent of their shots to earn a 71-66 win and complete a season sweep of the Tigers.
Even with the loss to Yale, Princeton still was in play for a shot at March Madness as a win over Brown on Saturday combined with a victory against Penn would send the Tigers into a one-game playoff with Harvard for a spot in the NCAAs.
But Princeton ran into more trouble against Brown, falling behind early as news came in that Harvard was pulling away to a victory at Cornell. With things looking bleak, the Tigers did a get a jolt of momentum as Denton Koon hit a halfcourt three-pointer at the buzzer to pull the Tigers within four at the half against the Bears.
“I thought Denton’s three at the end of the half was going to be a boost for us because we were really struggling,” said Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson in his postgame comments on the Princeton athletics website.
The struggles, however, continued as Princeton found itself trailing 62-50 with 3:36 left in regulation. The Tigers got the Brown margin down to four points on five occasions in the last 1:28 but couldn’t get closer as the Bears pulled away to an 80-67 win and extinguished Princeton’s chances for an NCAA bid.
“I thought they did some nice things defensively but once again it was us, that was a major concern,” said Henderson, whose team moved to 16-11 overall and 9-4 Ivy in the wake of its lost weekend with champion Harvard ending the regular season at 19-9 overall and 11-3 Ivy.
“If we could make more free throws or a three in there and it could have been a totally different game. We just couldn’t quite get over the hump.”
The team’s defensive struggles against Yale and Brown were particularly perplexing since the Tigers entered the weekend leading the Ivy League in scoring defense, giving up 57.0 points per game.
“We were hanging around a little too much; there was less substance,” said Henderson.
“I think that is what happens when you are not defending. This hurts, this is not where we want to be. It is not what we hung our hat on all season. You have to be the aggressor on the defensive end, we have been good at that most of the season but we lost sight of a couple of guys. We just couldn’t find our way.”
It also hurts to see the Princeton seniors fall short of what they saw as their destiny.
“I am really disappointed for our seniors,” said Henderson, whose group of seniors features the program’s second all-time scorer, Ian Hummer, together with Mack Darrow and Brendan Connolly.
“We have one game left and we are going to prepare for that but to be officially out of the race is tough; this is why those guys came to school here. It is a very special senior class and I am very disappointed right now.”