March 8, 2017

PU Men’s Hoops Produces Historic Weekend, Wraps Up 1st Perfect Ivy Season Since 1997-98

WISE MAN: Princeton University men’s basketball player Spencer Weisz dribbles upcourt in a game earlier this season. Last Saturday, senior guard Weisz celebrated the program’s annual Senior Night in style, scoring 13 points as Princeton defeated Dartmouth 85-48. The win was the 17th straight for the Tigers as they improved to 21-6 overall and 14-0 Ivy League. It was the program’s first perfect Ivy campaign since 1997-98. The Tigers will now compete in the Ivy League Tournament at the Palestra in Philadelphia where they are seeded first and will play fourth-seeded Penn in a semifinal contest on March 11 with the victor advancing to the title game the next day. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

History was in the air as the Princeton University men’s basketball team hosted Harvard last Friday evening.

The legendary Bill Bradley ’65, the program’s all-time leading scorer, was a towering presence courtside, sitting with Princeton athletics director Molly Marcoux Samaan and other luminaries in front row seats as a throng of 3,799 packed Jadwin Gym.

The current Tiger squad, for its part, was looking to add another chapter to the lore of the program as a win would result in an outright Ivy League title and keep it on track to achieve a perfect league record for the first time since the 1997-98 season.

The contest also marked the beginning of the last weekend at Jadwin for a stellar senior class.

A tough, talented Harvard squad, though, wasn’t about to be a willing foil, battling back from a 41-32 halftime deficit to take a 55-53 lead with 11:49 left. The foes were knotted at 69-69 with 1:34 left in regulation before Amir Bell hit a driving left-handed layup high off the glass with one second left to put Princeton ahead to stay in a hard-earned 73-69 triumph.

Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson, who was a star on the 1997-98 team  that posted an overall record of 27-2 to go with its 14-0 Ivy mark, was thrilled to see his squad earn the program’s first outright crown since 2003-04 (The 2010-11 team tied for title and then won a playoff game over Harvard) and stay unblemished in league play.

“We clinched a share of the title up in Ithaca but tonight is a special night for us, especially for Steven (Cook) and his fellow seniors because we haven’t had a title here in a while,” said Henderson. “I am really proud of the guys for an outright championship.”

While Bell’s circus shot punctuated the win, Henderson noted that the junior guard was hardly alone in his heroics as Myles Stephens’ hustle made the play possible and Cook carried the Tigers most of the night, matching his career high with 30 points.

“Amir making the shot doesn’t happen, which is an unbelievable shot, without Myles getting the rebound that gives us the extra possession,” said Henderson. “Steve had a really incredible performance tonight.”

Bell, for his part, characterized his shot as a spur of the moment play.

“We were just trying to get the last shot and Myles got a big offensive rebound,” said Bell.

“We just went for the matchup that would probably be best for us. I was trying to get to the rim and get a ball up on the basket so maybe if I missed we could get an offensive rebound. I was fortunate enough to have it go in.”

In reflecting on producing one of the best games of his career, senior star Cook credited his teammates with putting him in position to succeed.

“I think we knew going in that it was going to be a big game; Princeton-Harvard is always a battle so we knew what it was going to be like,” said the 6’5, 200-pound Cook, who hit on 13-of-16 shots from the floor with two 3-pointers and some thunderous dunks.

“I was just trying to bring some energy. I thought that my teammates did a great job of setting me up. I just took what they gave to me and it worked out well.”

Things worked out well a night later as Princeton routed Dartmouth 85-48 to end the regular season at 21-6 overall and 14-0 Ivy, extending its winning streak to 17 in the process.

While the Ivy League is holding its first-ever tournament this year, Cook and his teammates still see the 14-0 league mark as significant.

“It is still very important to us, being here for three years already, that is the way the league has always been and that is how we are used to seeing the league,” said Cook of the Tigers, who are the first team to achieve the feat since Cornell did so in the 2007-08 season.

“I know things are different with the postseason tournament. We haven’t had an undefeated team since coach was here in 1998 so we want to continue that tradition and finish the season strong.”

For Cook, playing in his final weekend at Jadwin triggered some strong emotions.

“It is a little surreal to be honest; you put so much time into the program and your teammates and this university,” said Cook.

“It is crazy that it is coming to an end, these are the people that I want to be doing it with.”

Henderson, for his part, is savoring his time with Cook and his classmates.

“Steve, Spencer and the seniors, they lead us in every way,” said Henderson, whose group of seniors includes Khyan Rayner, Alexander Lee, Hans Brase, Peter Miller, and Spencer Weisz in addition to Cook.

“I have been coaching long enough now to know that this just doesn’t come around that often. The example they set is great; Steve and his classmates make me want to be a better person. I really feel like they are pulling us up. I have been enjoying being around this group very much and we hope to have a lot of basketball left.”

With the Tigers now competing in the Ivy tourney at the Palestra in Philadelphia where they are seeded first and will play fourth-seeded Penn in a semifinal contest on March 11 with the victor advancing to the title game the next day, Henderson is upbeat about his team’s prospects.

“We are playing our best basketball right now and there is a lot of basketball left and we want that opportunity to play when everything is on the line,” said Henderson.

“I think those guys feel that. We are all trying this tournament on for size for the first time.”