February 21, 2024

Displaying Intense Will to Win as it Plays with Joy, PU Men’s Hoops Tops Yale, Tightens Ivy Title Race

CHIN UP: Princeton University men’s basketball player Caden Pierce leaps past a Brown defender in action last Friday night. Sophomore forward Pierce tallied 21 points with 12 rebounds to help Princeton defeat the Bears 72-63. A night later against visiting Yale, Pierce split his chin open chasing a loose ball in the first minute of the game and returned to the game to chip in 11 points and five rebounds to help the Tiger top the Bulldogs 73-62. Princeton, now 19-3 overall and 7-2 Ivy League, plays at Harvard on February 23 and at Dartmouth in February 24. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Just seconds into the showdown between the Princeton University men’s basketball team and visiting Yale last Saturday night, Caden Pierce served notice of the intensity the Tigers were bringing into the clash.

Sprinting after a loose ball, Princeton sophomore forward Pierce launched himself face-first into the court in an attempt to get possession.

Pierce left the game holding his face in a towel as he got treatment behind a partition near the Princeton bench and returned later in the first half.

Picking up where he left off when he returned to the court, Pierce shook off the pain and resumed his aggressive, rugged play. The 6’7, 220-pound Pierce ended up with 11 points and five rebounds to help spark Princeton as it handed Yale its first loss in Ivy League play, topping the Bulldogs 73-62 before a raucous crowd of 4,358 at Jadwin Gym.

“I feel great, the win helped; I dove and busted my chin open and got stitches,” said Pierce, who had tallied 21 points with 12 rebounds on Friday to help Princeton defeat Brown 72-63 to start the back-to-back. “Thankfully we had a medical staff here that fixed me up. They put something over my face so I had no idea what the score was and I came back. I got four or five stitches.”

Despite the stitches in his chin, Pierce kept going to the hoop, repeatedly challenging Yale’s towering 7’0, 255-pound star Danny Wolf.

“I feel like the coaches and my teammates put me in a good position to be successful against him,” said Pierce. “Sometimes it is not there — I try not to force it. If the help comes, I try to dish it out. At the end of the day, it just comes down to making the right play. I think I did that down the stretch.”

As the Tigers pulled away down the stretch, Pierce punctuated the win, slamming down a dunk on a breakaway with 42 seconds left in regulation as Princeton improved to 19-3 overall and 7-2 Ivy League.

“It is not every day that you get to dunk in front of so many thousand people,” said Pierce. “It was definitely awesome.”

Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson credited his players with producing an awesome effort in topping Yale, who brought an 8-0 Ivy record into the contest.

“We have played some great games against them, we really dictated things physically which was part of the intent,” said Henderson, whose team is now one game behind Ivy frontrunners Yale and Cornell (19-4 overall, 8-1 Ivy). “They are really tough, difficult guys to guard. I thought both Zach [Martini] and Caden were just terrific. Kudos to Jack Scott coming in after Caden got hit in the chin early on in the game. I thought that sort of steadied the ship for us. He was terrific, giving us some really important, settling minutes.”

Senior guard Matt (Mush) Allocco was terrific down the stretch for the Tigers, hitting some key shots as he scored 18 points with three rebounds and three assists.

“Mush is playing like a senior, we felt good about the matchups he was getting,” said Henderson of Allocco, who was later named the Ivy Player of the Week. “He made some really tough late clock shots and he made all of his free throws (7-of-7). The seniors, Zach and Mush, are extraordinary with their will to win. It is really a special leadership quality.”

Martini, for his part, acknowledged that the Tigers brought a greater focus to the court Saturday after struggling to beat Brown as they rallied from a 10-point second half deficit to get the win.

“Like coach said, with Cade going down early and Jack coming in, it was a seamless transition,” said Martini. “For him to come in and play the post without missing a beat, I think that just shows dividends of how locked in we were tonight. That is a great team and we want to see them again, we love playing them. We were locked on for 40 minutes today, which was great.”

The roaring crowd on hand at Jadwin gave the Tigers a great lift.

“It is reflective of the work we have put in all year, carrying over from last year,” said Martini. “I am not surprised, I would like to see it more often. It is awesome playing in front of the students. Seeing the students get here an hour before tip-off was a great feeling and something that we are not really used to.”

Martini scored 10 points in the first half to get the fans cheering early.

“It was getting the ball where I can make a play and get an open shot,” said 6’7, 235-pound Martini, who contributed 10 points, four rebounds, and two assists in the win. “We knew that the pick and pop might be there and just cutting on them. Xaivian [Lee] got me two nice lay-ups. It was great to see the ball go in early, it helps on the defensive side of the ball.”

The Tigers excelled on the defensive side of the ball, stunningly holding Wolf scoreless. The Bulldog standout came into the night averaging 15.3 points a game and had scored 21 points against Princeton in a 70-64 win for Yale on February 2.

“I thought one through five, we just knew where to find help,” said Martini of the approach to stifling Wolf. “He is a tough cover one-on-one. We know we can help off of some guys. I thought we were pretty consistent on our double teams. It was not a one-man effort, it was a good collective effort.”

That effort highlighted the passion the relatively undersized Princeton frontcourt brings on a nightly basis.

“We are not the tallest group, but man we are going to fight till the clock ends,” said Martini. “There is no quit in us, that showed tonight. We are going to carry that over into the end of the Ivy League.”

In Henderson’s view, the Tigers possess a special fighting mentality that makes coming to the gym a pleasure for him and his staff.

“There is a spirit and just an incredible will to focus on the things that are going to matter towards winning,” said Henderson, who got a game-high 19 points along with seven rebounds and five assists from flashy sophomore guard Lee in the win. “We measure all of the things — loose balls, deflections — and they own it. I have had groups that don’t own that but this group owns it so much, starting with the guys up top. If you are not enjoying coaching this kind of a team, you have got to get out of coaching because this doesn’t come around very often.”

The team’s spirit and winning ways has fans coming to Jadwin in droves.

“I love it and I love it for them,” said Henderson, a 1998 Princeton alum who heard the cheers at Jadwin as a star guard for the Tigers in the late 1990s. “When I played here, this is what it was like. It has been a long time coming and it is because of the players. I am so proud of them.”

Pierce loves being part of the Tiger squad, noting that everyone is making a contribution.

“We have got a special group here and we know it,” said Pierce. “It is not just the guys who play. We couldn’t do it without the guys on the bench as well or James [DeVincenzi] and Jamel [Jones], our strength and conditioning coach and our trainer. It is a complete group effort, we know that.”

Martini, for his part, believes that the camaraderie in the group results in bliss on the court.

“When you are playing with joy, you are playing freely,” said Martini, who looks to keep playing well as Princeton heads to New England this week for games at Harvard on February 23 and at Dartmouth in February 24. “You are not thinking, you are not worried about the last play. I also think that 1 through 14, we are all super close on and off the court, and that helps with that.”