In its last trip to the state of Pennsylvania, the Princeton University men’s basketball team pulled off one of the great comebacks in program history.
Trailing by 20 points at Penn State with 8:29 remaining in regulation on December 14, the Tigers rode the sizzling shooting of senior Will Barrett, who drained five three-pointers to come away with an 81-79 overtime victory.
Last Saturday, Princeton was back in the Keystone State and found themselves in a similar predicament as they played at Penn in the Ivy League opener for both teams.
With 16 minutes left in the second half, Princeton trailed by 51-40, sending a crowd of 6,322 at the storied Palestra into an uproar.
Once again, Barrett caught fire, scoring eight points as Princeton forged ahead 61-60 with 7:43 remaining in regulation.
But this time, the Tigers couldn’t close the deal. Trailing by two in the waning seconds, a T.J. Bray pass to Barrett was knocked away and the Quakers tacked on a free throw to earn a 77-74 victory.
Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson tipped his hat to Penn for coming through in the 229th meeting between the archrivals.
“They took it right to us; all the credit goes to Penn,” said Henderson, whose team dropped to 11-3 overall and 0-1 Ivy with the defeat.
“We obviously had some opportunities to win the game but I thought they were the better team tonight. It is a credit to the way they prepared themselves tonight.”
In Henderson’s view, Penn’s play in the paint was a critical factor in the contest.
“The ability to come up with good stuff around the basket,” said Henderson, when asked what made the difference for Penn down the stretch.
“I think we put ourselves in a nice hole and they had something to do with that. The 25 points between [Darien] Nelson-Henry and [Fran] Dougherty in the first half, that was a killer.”
The Quakers’ dominance inside was reflected by the rebounding margin that saw Penn build a 42-25 edge on the boards.
“We have been very good on the boards this year so that crushed us,” said Henderson.
“I think they were more aggressive. This is a game where the more aggressive team generally wins and I thought they were a little more aggressive.”
While Princeton executed well offensively, shooting 43.1 percent from the field and committing only eight turnovers, the Tigers need to be more aggressive at the other end of the court.
“We have got to defend, we got to be able to stop guys because I think we are scoring enough points to be successful,” said Henderson, who got 19 points from Bray with Barrett adding 15, Hans Brase scoring 14, and Denton Koon and Spencer Weisz chipping in 10 apiece.
Bray, for his part, acknowledged that Penn took the initiative from the opening tip-off. “We have got to come out ready to go every night,” said Bray. “We didn’t really do that tonight and Penn punched us in the mouth early in the game and early in the second half. We were kind of playing from behind all night and that is just something that can’t happen.”
The Tigers thought they could make something good happen on the last play to Barrett.
“We had run a few times in practice and had gotten it but the guy made a great play, he got his hand in there just enough,” said Bray.
Although losing the Ivy opener puts Princeton behind the eight-ball in the so-called 14-game tournament for the league’s NCAA tournament bid, the Tigers still hold their title chances in their hands.
“There is very little margin for error but I don’t think we can focus on that,” said Henderson.
“We just have to concentrate on us. We have a good team. We just have to zero in on what we are doing. We really have a lot of work to do.”
With Princeton going on an exam hiatus, the Tigers will have to take care of classwork before they can turn to the stretch drive.
“It is like two different seasons,” said Henderson, whose team will host Division III foe Kean University on January 26 before heading to New England where the Tigers will play at Ivy frontrunner Harvard on January 31 and at Dartmouth on February 1.
“Coming up, we have two weeks worth of exams and papers. These guys know what to do, they can get to the gym and get some work in and get ready to go to Cambridge in three weeks.”