When Patrick Saunders, Douglas Davis, and John Comfort joined the Princeton University men’s basketball team in 2008, they found a program in transition.
The Tigers went 6-23 the year before they trio arrived and then improved to 13-14 in their freshman seasons.
For Saunders, the lessons learned that freshman year laid the foundation for the success to come as the Tigers have regained their status as an Ivy League title contender.
“When we were freshmen, we had good upperclassmen to look up to, guys like Marcus Schroeder and Zach Finley,” said Saunders, a two-time team captain who will be looking to keep winning as the Tigers compete in the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) where they were slated to play at Evansville on March 13 in first round action.
“So I think it started there and they just taught us how to really play hard and to give everything you have got in every practice and game. I think it was just a continual thing of bringing a culture of hard work.”
That work ethic was on display last week as Princeton beat Penn 62-52 before a crowd of 3,590 at Jadwin Gym on Senior Night for the trio of Saunders, Davis, and Comfort to end the regular season at 19-11 overall and 10-4 in Ivy League play.
Even though the Tigers entered the March 6 contest having been eliminated from this year’s Ivy title race, they were determined to give the Quakers a battle as the latter needed a win to force a title playoff game with Harvard.
In the view of Davis, Princeton had plenty to play for in the latest installment of its bitter rivalry with the Quakers.
“Every time you step on the floor you are trying to win,” said Davis, a former Hun School standout who has helped Princeton go 66-27 over the last three seasons with an Ivy League title and three postseason appearances in that stretch.
“I wasn’t going to feel right to let Penn share the Ivy League title and winning it on our home court. Our rivalry with Penn goes way back. Harvard is good but our rivalry is with Penn. Harvard won the Ivy but Penn wasn’t going to win it on our court.”
Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson liked the way his seniors rose to the occasion in their regular season finale.
“Any time you can get your seniors to play like that, it is very special,” asserted Henderson, who got 12 points from Davis and 10 points from Saunders with junior star Ian Hummer leading the way as he contributed 18 points, 10 rebounds, and four assists.
“I thought Doug was good on [Zack] Rosen. It is a good group. I feel fortunate I could coach a team with seniors like this.”
It was a good feeling for Princeton to beat Penn and thwart its title shot.
“I think when Penn is good, it is good for us,” added Henderson, a 1998 Princeton alum and former Tiger star guard.
“Beating your travel partner and rival has always meant a lot to me. I think it means a lot to these guys too. It is a special game. I have always thought it was a special rivalry and I think it still is, I hope it continues.”
The Tigers are hoping to continue their strong play in the CBI. “These guys are really enjoying playing with each other; they are making each other better,” said Henderson, whose team won eight of its last nine regular season contests.
Davis, for his part, has enjoyed seeing how far the program has come in his four years.
“It just took a lot of hard work,” said Davis, a second-team All-Ivy performer this season who is third on the Princeton scoring list with 1,499 points.
“We all came from schools that won in high school so we wanted to have that translate at the college level and I feel that the upperclassmen really helped mold us into good college players. We were fortunate enough to turn this thing around. It wasn’t just this class, it was the class before us and the guys under us as well.”