March 15, 2017

Tiger Men’s Hoops Wins Ivy Tournament, Will Face Notre Dame in NCAA Opener

UP FOR THE IRISH: Members of the Princeton University men’s basketball team, from left, Hans Brase, Pete Miller, Steve Cook, and Spencer Weisz, let out a yelp at a gathering at Triumph Brewing Company last Sunday evening after learning that they will be facing Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers defeated Yale 71-59 earlier in the day in the finals of the inaugural Ivy League tournament in improving to 23-6 and posting their 19th straight victory. Princeton earned a No. 12 seed in the West Regional of the NCAA tourney and will head to Buffalo, N.Y. to face the fifth-seeded Fighting Irish (25-8) on March 16 at Buffalo’s KeyBank Center. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

It was a nightmare scenario coming to life for the Princeton University men’s basketball team.

After producing a dream season that saw the Tigers go 14-0 in Ivy League regular season play, Princeton found itself trailing host Penn last Saturday afternoon in the semifinals of the league’s inaugural postseason tournament.

With the Palestra in an uproar and urging the fourth-place Quakers to the upset, Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson knew his squad was on the ropes as it looked to keep alive in its quest for the NCAA tournament berth that went to the winner of tourney.

“I didn’t know how we were going to get on top of the game,” said Henderson, whose team trailed 44-34 early in the second half.

“We were behind in so many different ways, not just in the score but physically and mentally. They were putting a beating on us.”

Showing the resolve that got them through an undefeated Ivy campaign, the Tigers rallied as sophomore Myles Stephens flew in for a tip-in to knot the game at 59-59 with six seconds left and force overtime. Princeton went on a 9-0 run to start the extra session and never looked back on the way to a 72-64 win.

“I think we got it tied and then they went up four and they missed a three and Devin (Cannady) got a chance to make a couple of free throws,” said Henderson, who got 21 points and 10 rebounds from Stephens in the triumph with junior Amir Bell chipping in 16 points off the bench and sophomore Cannady scoring 12 points, including 10-of-10 from the free throw line.

“I thought that was a huge turning point, it gave us a chance. We have always been able to capitalize on small chances.This group wins close games; it is a very tough bunch.”

A day later against Yale in the championship game, Princeton broke open a close contest, pulling away to a 71-59 victory and earning the league’s automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.

“There was some tension that had come out and I thought we did a good job today of adjusting,” said Henderson, whose team improved to 23-6 as it posted its 19th straight victory.

“There is a plan going into the game. We take a few haymakers and they go now we are ready to fight and they go forward from there. I think that is what makes this group what it is.”

Princeton senior star and co-captain Spencer Weisz saw a fighting spirit on the defensive end as a critical factor in they win over the Bulldogs.

“We got punched in the mouth a few times early; we didn’t come out as strong as we would have liked to,” said Weisz, who had seven points and eight assists against Yale with Stephens leading the way as he contributed 23 points and eight rebounds.

“Yale is a great team. We settled down in the second half and got some good shots offensively. Our defense is what carried us all year and we really stuck to that today.”

Going undefeated in regular season conference play and then winning the first Ivy tourney is a great achievement for the program.

“It is certainly tough; this tournament was new for everyone,” added Weisz, the Ivy League Player of the Year this season.

“I still think it is a great thing for the league. There is so much exposure; the atmosphere was tremendous. Fortunately we were able to come out with two titles. We are looking to do a lot more in the dance.”

On Sunday evening, the Tigers got their assignment for the Big Dance as they earned a No. 12 seed in the West Regional of the NCAA Tournament and will head to Buffalo, N.Y. to face fifth-seeded Notre Dame (25-8) on March 16 at Buffalo’s KeyBank Center.

With Princeton having narrowly missed going to the NCAA tourney last year after finishing in second place one game behind champion Yale, Weisz is savoring the chance to end his college career in March Madness.

“It is a dream come true, you always dream about this as a kid,” said Weisz, a 6’4, 210-pound native of Florham Park, N.J. who now has 1,219 points in his time at Princeton

“To have it cut short last year by a game and a few possessions, tears your heart out. It is so much sweeter this year, doing it in the fashion that we did.”

Weisz knows the Tigers will have to show a lot of heart to come away with a win against Notre Dame, a program that plays in the powerful Atlantic Coast Conference and has made two straight trips to the NCAA quarterfinals.

“They are an incredible team,” said Weisz. “We will watch a lot of video on them over the next few days. We are just looking to stick to our principles, stick to what has got us here. We are excited for the game.”

Henderson, for his part, was excited to see his players leap to their feet and holler in unison at a Selection Show party at Triumph Brewing Company last Sunday upon finding out that they would be playing Notre Dame.

“Just watching them react, that is all matters,” said a smiling Henderson, with his voice raspy from the tense weekend at the Palestra.

“They won it, they want to play good teams, and they want be relevant. They believe in themselves, that is all you can ask out of a group.”

Princeton is clearly facing a talented group in the Fighting Irish.“Steve Vasturia is a senior; he is a local kid that we recruited,” said Henderson.

“He is a terrific player. They have Matt Farrell. In some ways, it is a similar looking team (to us). They are smart, they play together, they take care of the ball well. It will be a real challenge but we will get to work tonight and be ready to go.”

In Henderson’s view, the Tigers feature a versatility that could pose a real challenge for Notre Dame.

“What we have is what I think is useful in tournament, we make adjustments,” said Henderson, reflecting on a contest which will see the victor advance to a second round matchup against the winner of the game between fourth-seeded West Virginia and 13th-seeded Bucknell.

“We don’t play one specific way that they can figure out. I think that is useful in tournament games when circumstances take you one way and you have got to figure it out.”

Weisz, for his part, believes that adaptability along with a special chemistry will make Princeton tough to beat in the tournament.

“Everyone is willing to do whatever it takes to win,” said Weisz. “If guys get hurt or roles change, everyone is always in it to win at all costs. Everyone is encouraging everyone all the time. We really want what’s best for one another.”