Newer fans to the Ivy League may not realize this, but sticking the Penn-Princeton (and Harvard-Dartmouth) games in a slot before the rest of the league starts in a new phenomenon. In fact, its only two years old, Princeton beat Penn on Jan. 12, 2013 to open their Ivy campaign. As early as the 2008-09 season, none of the Ivy teams began their conference campaigns before February.
Of course, sadly, people just joining in on the Ivy fun may not understand how – not so long ago – Penn-Princeton was it in the Ancient Eight. From 1989 to 2007, either Penn or Princeton represented the Ivy in the NCAA Tournament, and only once from ‘89 (the year Princeton burst onto the national scene when the Tigers nearly upset Georgetown as a No. 16) to the present day, only twice has an Ivy campaign completed without Penn or Princeton in the top two, 2007-08 when Cornell was perfect in league play and Brown (?!?) jumped up to grab second (Penn was third), and last season where Harvard obviously won, Princeton finished tied for third. Penn? Well, let’s not even go there.
And so, for us nostalgic types, it was a tad bittersweet Saturday at gold ol’ Jadwin Gym (and Pete Carril Court) to see just 2,473 hearty souls in attendance, but those that were there saw Princeton storm back from 15 down in the second half to avoid what would have been a likely fatal early blow to their Ivy chances to beat Penn 78-74.
The Tigers (7-9, 1-0), have had their moments this season, beating a very good Stony Brook team and playing well against BCS teams Cal and Wake Forest, but suffered computer ranking debilitating defeats to Incarnate Word (at home) and Fairleigh Dickinson, leading pundits to believe that they’re headed for fourth (behind Harvard, Yale, and Columbia) at best in the Ivy this season, with teams like Cornell, Brown, and Dartmouth not too far behind.
But a win is a win and all that jazz and the Tigers did show a lot of guts down the stretch.
“We went red hot into conference play last year, and then we got dunked down at the Palestra,” fourth-year Princeton coach Mitch Henderson said. “Then we had to regroup. I just see this as a hell of a win tonight, I don’t want to look much beyond that right now. We found a way to win that’s been unusual for us, and that’s a huge positive. I think we have all the pieces, we just, you know, both teams are really young, probably even in terms of age.”
Henderson may have found something in sophomore Henry Caruso, who played just 14 minutes (eight games) as a freshman, and to say he was used sparingly this season might be an understatement. In the six games prior to Princeton’s win over Norfolk State on Jan. 6, Caruso logged a total of 19 minutes, 13 of them coming against Cal. But in the Ivy opener, it was Caruso with a game, season, and career-high 23 points in 29 minutes, getting to the free throw line 16 times, making 14 (Princeton was 32-43 on free throws, Penn just 9-14).
Although Caruso’s minutes are limited, he leads the Tigers in usage by a pretty wide margin (27.7%), and despite being undersized, he breathed life into a team that badly needed it.
“Coach Carill calls him K.A. Ruso, you guys can figure out what that stands for,” Henderson said. “Two games in a row, we’ve been missing Steve (Cook), he’s been sort of under the weather, but it’s nice to have someone coming off the bench that gives you that attacking the basket mentality, which is what this game called for all the way.”
Henderson also got a spark from senior Ben Hazel, who was a major contributor last season, and started the first four games this season (averaging 30 minutes per game). But after the Incarnate Word loss, Hazel had played just six minutes in the past 11 contests. When his number was called Saturday, though, he hit a massive three-pointer from the right corner to complete the Tigers comeback and scored seven points (and added three steals) in 16 minutes.
“You always have to be ready,” Hazel said. “That’s just how it’s been this year. Coach has always said, ‘Next man up’. Then once you’re out there, it’s just basketball, it’s us against Penn and everything else takes care of itself.
It’s possible people like Caruso and Hazel could help at the other end as well for a Princeton team that has been pretty poor defensively, and was torched for about 30 minutes by Penn (the Quakers were at 1.21 points per possession at the half and were likely higher than that after they scored 17 points in the first seven minutes of the second half).
Henderson not only showed a 1-3-1 zone, but stuck with it for large portions of the game, which is usually a sign of desperation or lack of confidence in their team’s ability to defend. But they did the job down the stretch.
“Coach always mentions having a teeth to our defense, and when Ben came in, he got one early steal and you could just tell the momentum swung so heavy in our favor,” Princeton’s leading scorer, Spencer Weisz (who had 20 points of his own) said. “It’s contagious.”
Without another Ivy League game for 20 days, Princeton was able to get just one game in that span, Jan. 25 against Division III Rowan. They then host Harvard and Dartmouth on Jan. 30 and 31, which should give us a better idea on whether the Tigers can possibly defy the predictions and jump back to where they were for so long, the top tier of the Ivy League.
Meanwhile, the Quakers (3-8, 0-1), a near unanimous pick for the bottom of the Ivy who did little to dispel that notion with losses to Delaware State and Wagner in non-conference play, played inspired basketball for about 30 minutes. To be honest, their offensive numbers have been quite good in spite of it all this season: 78th in eFG% (51.3%), 45th in offensive rebounding (35.9%), and 34th in two-pointers (52.6%).
However, even with those, you can’t help but stare at their hideous turnover rate, 25.9% (only six teams are worse nationally). Penn had just seven turnovers in the first half, but soon they started coming fast and furious as the Quakers finished with 17 (still below their season average at 23.3%). Perhaps even more importantly, they completely lost their cool on the offensive end. Princeton seemed to have little answer for Darien Nelson-Henry, yet Nelson-Henry ended up with just five field goal attempts in the second half, finishing with 18 points (8-10 FG) and only four rebounds.
Tony Hicks was outstanding in pushing the Quakers into the lead and also finished with 18 points, but looked like he tried to do too much late in the contest, finishing with five turnovers and a lot of scoreless possessions.
“I just think offensively we stopped playing,” Penn coach Jerome Allen said. “We stopping screening, we stopped being aggressive and we started watching the clock. Defensively, we stopped defending. They started making shots, and they exuded an element of toughness that we just didn’t respond to.”
Penn was able to grab four non-conference games before it resumes Ivy play against Dartmouth and Harvard, two of which at Big Five games against Villanova and St. Joseph’s (the other two against Niagara and Monmouth out of the MAAC, which has an odd number of teams). The Quakers are still young, but Hicks and Nelson-Henry are juniors, and for a Penn program that has had just one winning season in its last seven, the losing is becoming old with seemingly little relief in sight.
Freshman Mike Auger showed well Saturday, and Allen started two other freshmen in Antonio Woods and Darnell Foreman (and a sophomore Matt Howard led the Quakers with 35 minutes), but this was another one Penn let slip away.
“It’s easy to look for excuses as to why you don’t get it done,” Allen said. “Everything starts with me at the end of the day. With that being said, we came here to win, not to gauge where we’re at as far as how many games we’ve played. We just didn’t get it done. The game is 40 minutes long, and we knew that when we started, so I can’t really praise these guys for the way we played in the first 30 minutes, I have to hold them to a certain standard, and we didn’t get it done.”
Henderson and Allen are both coaching at their alma maters, so they know what it’s like when things go well. And who knows what the future holds? But it would be a major shock if, when the teams finish the season against each other on March 10, the Palestra is rocking in a game that means something for both teams.