On Friday evening, the Princeton University men’s basketball team squandered a 13-point first half lead in losing 53-52 to Columbia, seeing its prospects for an Ivy League title take a potentially fatal hit as the Tigers fell to 0-4 in league play.
A night later, Princeton topped Cornell 69-48 for its first Ivy triumph and, more importantly, saw reason to hope for future title runs as freshmen Spencer Weisz and Steven Cook each produced career-highs in points.
Weisz tallied a game-high 18 points on 6-of-7 shooting from the floor while Cook chipped in 13 points as he hit 5-of-7 shots from the field, delighting a crowd of 2,964 on hand at Jadwin Gym.
In reflecting on the win which improved Princeton to 13-6 overall and 1-4 Ivy, Weisz said the Tigers focused on relaxing to break their slide.
“Before the game and the pregame talk, coach really emphasized to just have fun,” said Weisz, who has been averaging 8.9 points a game with a previous career best of 17 points.
“We were playing with too much tension all around and we needed to loosen up.”
For Cook, his breakthrough effort came down to feeling more at ease on the court.
“I definitely felt a lot more comfortable,” said Cook, a 6’5, 185-pound native of Winnetka, Ill. whose career high coming into the night was five points. “We had a great week of practice and I had gotten a lot of encouragement from the guys after not getting a ton of opportunities in the beginning of the season.”
It was Cook’s third start of the season and he acknowledges getting the opportunity has brought some pressure.
“It has been tough, there are a lot of adjustments that you have to make, especially as a freshman,” said Cook. “I tried to stay ready and play hard.”
Developing a bond with his classmate Weisz has helped Cook in the adjustment process.
“It has been great, Spencer has so much that he brings to the court and so much that he brings to the team,” said Cook.
“He is a great passer, he is a great shooter, he knocked down three 3’s tonight. He is very versatile and he is always looking to make people around him better, he reminds me a lot of T.J. [senior point guard and team captain T.J. Bray] actually. T.J. does a lot of similar things and really makes us better.”
Weisz, for his part, is looking for Cook more and more on the court. “We have a few more years together but I feel like we are creating a solid base together now,” said Weisz.
“In practice, things are starting to click a lot more and I am looking forward to the rest of the season and the years to come after.”
Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson is hoping that the win over Cornell is a harbinger of good things to come over the rest of the season.
“I thought we did a nice job of having a short-term memory; I don’t think anybody in this program got much sleep last night,” said Henderson, who got 17 points, six assists, and five rebounds from senior star Bray in the victory over the Big Red.
“It is amazing what a couple of shots falling does for a team’s soul. I felt like we got our groove back a little bit and we have got to keep it going.”
In Henderson’s view, the Tigers benefited by loosening up a little bit. “I think just the way the ball was moving and the mental approach to the game,” said Henderson, when asked to discuss the biggest positives of the team’s performance.
“I don’t think we do very well with tension so I thought they were loose, they were ready to go, there was energy and that’s the way you play the game.”
Inserting Cook into the starting lineup has given the Tigers a jolt of energy.
“Steven can really make shots and he is a good rebounder,” said Henderson.
“It was really the week leading up to our Division III game (an 84-54 win over Kean on January 26) that things started clicking, with the way he was moving. When you start losing games, everything has to change a little bit. I am fortunate that we have Steve here and he was patient and he has given us some boost that we needed.”
The Tigers got a boost on Saturday from the presence of numerous alums of the program who were on hand at Jadwin for a post-game function in honor of former coach and Hall of Famer Pete Carril.
“We did talk about it. I certainly felt this way when I came here,” said Henderson, a former Princeton star whose team plays at Brown on February 14 and at Yale on February 15.
“The reason we are here is for a lot of the guys that are here tonight. I think they are here to say thanks to coach. We are lucky, we get the opportunity to do that with him everyday. I think there are only a handful of programs in the country that have a consistency with the players wanting to come back and most important, the way that we think. We try to play smart and play tough. From Geoff Petrie to Armond Hill to Craig Robinson and too many players to name who are here tonight. Nobody is feeling sorry for us, those guys want us to fight and that is what I think these guys did tonight and I am happy for them.”
Weisz, for his part, made it clear that he and his teammates are inspired by their predecessors.
“Also I think the perspective of having the alumni in the stands for the Carril event really helped,” said Weisz.
“We had John Thompson III [Princeton hoops alum and current Georgetown head coach] talk to us earlier in the year and he was talking about how the older guys pay attention to what we are doing here in the season. We are playing for more than just ourselves, we are playing for the program’s history and the guys that came before us.”