January 10, 2024

Propelled by Dazzling Performance from Lee, PU Men’s Hoops Routs Harvard in Ivy Opener

REACHING NEW HEIGHTS: Princeton University men’s basketball player Xaivian Lee heads to the hoop in recent action. Last Saturday, sophomore Lee poured in a career-high 33 points as Princeton routed visiting Harvard 89-58 in the Ivy League opener for both teams. Lee was later named the Ivy Player of the Week for the second time this season. The Tigers, now 13-1 overall and 1-0 Ivy, host Dartmouth on January 15. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

As the Princeton University men’s basketball team hosted Harvard last Saturday afternoon in the Ivy League opener for both teams, Zach Martini kept the Tigers in the game with some yeoman’s work as they got off to a shaky start.

Senior forward Martini drained a 3-pointer, hit a lay-up, and made a steal that led to a Matt Allocco bucket as Princeton trailed 11-7 in the early going.

“It was fortunate that I made a few shots to start the game because there were a little bit of jitters going into the first Ivy League game,” said Martini. “To see that first one fall really gives me the utmost confidence to start the game off and play the way I want to play on both sides of the floor. They got back to a little bit of a lead, but we got comfortable and started scoring the ball inside, which helps me score.”

Xaivian Lee took over from there in spectacular fashion, scoring eight points in the last 3:17 of the half as the Tigers built a 41-32 lead at intermission. In the second half, Lee poured in 21 points as the contest turned into a rout with Princeton pulling away to an 89-58 win before a roaring throng of 4,831 packing Jadwin Gym.

Sophomore guard Lee ended up with a career-high 33 points on 13-of-22 shooting, including 5-of-11 from 3-point range, with eight rebounds and seven assists as Princeton improved to 13-1 overall and 1-0 Ivy.

In reflecting on his dazzling performance, Lee acknowledged that it took him a while to get in the offensive flow.

“I think I started maybe 0-for-5 or something crazy like that, I was shooting it terribly,” said Lee, a 6’3, 171-pound native of Toronto, Canada, who played for Canada at the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) U19 World Cup last summer. “We kind of got going towards the end of the first half and I was getting to the rim. Everyone was hitting a lot of shots. When I feel I play like that in the first half and we are still up nine, it gives me a lot of confidence. In the second half, it was just keep playing and eventually something will fall.”

Over the last 20 minutes of the game, Lee put on a brilliant show, entertaining the crowd with his array of elusive sprints to the hoop and step-back threes.

“I don’t, like, try to do it,” said Lee in assessing his helter-skelter style. “Sometimes my play style can come off a little crazy, but when it works it looks good.”

Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson was amazed by Lee like the fans in the stands.

“What can you say? That was a performance, an absolute show by Xaivian,” said Henderson.

The Tigers didn’t perform at their best in the early stages of the contest as they fell behind 21-14 midway through the first half.

“I thought we had a little bit of jitters for the first game in the league for the first 15 minutes of the game,” said Henderson. “We found a little bit of our groove and Xaivian really got going.”

Henderson credited Martini, who ended up with 14 points, five rounds, and two steals against the Crimson as helping the Tigers finding their groove on a daily basis.

“Zach is playing so well, I am so proud of him,” said Henderson of Martini, a 6’7, 235-pound native of Warren, who is averaging 8.6 points and 3.3 rebounds a game. “I told him that I hope he can appreciate how well he is playing, what he is doing, and what he has done here already for our program. The gift of the seniors is that there is no ego and everybody knows it. It makes the life of the coach quite easy — it doesn’t always happen.”

In the win over Harvard, Princeton benefitted from unselfish play at both ends of the court, holding Harvard to 43.4 shooting (23-for-53) from the floor and forcing 13 turnovers while making just one turnover in the first 35 minutes of the contest.

“I thought we were really locked in, especially in the second half,” said Henderson, whose team returns to Ivy action when it hosts Dartmouth (4-10 overall, 0-1 Ivy) on January 15. “We gave ourselves a lot of opportunities. I though Zach’s defense on [Chisom] Okpara was terrific. He is a really tough kid to cover. I was pleased. I think the fact that we had one turnover, that is the first thing I look at. It doesn’t happen. The chemistry is terrific.”

Lee got caught up in that chemistry on the offensive end down the stretch.

“This game we were just playing,” said Lee, who was later named the Ivy Player of the Week for the second time this season. “I lost track of what even the score was, we were just hooping. It was a lot of fun.”

With Lee now averaging 18.1 points and 4.9 rebounds a game, he knows that league foes are going to come up with defenses designed to contain him.

“For me it is like, they are going to have to guard me one way or another, it is me not getting frustrated and sticking to what I know,” said Lee. “For me it is just reading the guy in the gap. If he is too low, I am going to hit my teammates every time. If he is not there, I am going to try to take it to the rack. I have to be adaptable. Obviously on the Ivy League teams are going to scout us well and give me different looks. I know whatever they do we are going to have a counter to it. It might not be me getting 30, 20 whatever, it might be someone else getting open looks. I think we are always going to be in a good position to succeed.”

Martini is not surprised to see Lee getting his points. “He might say he plays crazy but he is always at his own pace,” said Martini.

“Those step-back shots look hard but I have seen him make them every day. It was about time that the avalanche was about to unload.”

Playing with Lee is helping Martini make the most of his senior season.

“My game flourishes on those guys — Xaivian, Caden [Pierce], Mush (Matt Allocco) — getting to the hoop and letting me create space,” said Martini. “I just know I have six more games here, and I want to leave it all on the floor because this place means a lot of me. We don’t get the opportunity to play that much on the home court, especially this year.”

Lee, for his part, believes that the Tigers will keep pleasing the home fans.

“That was a great crowd, that was probably one of the best crowds we have had since Ivy Madness last year,” said Lee. “It is lot of fun when we have that behind us instead of against us. Hopefully they come back, it is hard not to come back if we are playing like that. I am excited.”