For the first half of this decade, the Ivy League’s defining rivalry was Harvard-Princeton. The two teams traded positions atop the preseason media poll from 2011-14, finishing first and second in the Ancient Eight in efficiency margin all four years. The axis of power might have shifted from Harvard-Princeton to Harvard-Yale of late, but Saturday night showed the Crimson and Tigers still have intense battles.
In a sold-out Lavietes Pavilion, Harvard trailed by as many as 14 points in the first half, and it was tied with the Tigers in the final three minutes before pulling away for a 63-55 win. With Yale’s concurrent loss at home to Columbia, the Crimson is alone atop the Ivy League — a familiar place for the four-time reigning champions.
“We get up for every Ivy League team, but given the history we have with Princeton and the battles we’ve had throughout the years, we definitely get up for Princeton, as they do with us,” Harvard senior Wesley Saunders said.
Harvard has swept Princeton each of the last two years — its first four-game win streak in the series since 1902-04 — but neither of the last two victories came easily. After Harvard survived a second-half Princeton rally for a 75-72 shootout win in January, the shape of Saturday’s rematch was flipped, with the Tigers rolling to an early lead. The visitors buried five of their first six three-pointers and held the Crimson scoreless for a six-minute span, taking a 33-19 lead late in the first half.
The traditional elements of Princeton’s offense have long frustrated Harvard, with backdoor cuts countering the Crimson’s high pressure on the perimeter; Princeton scored at least a dozen points directly off backdoor passes Saturday. And with four or five outside threats on the court for Princeton at all times, Harvard’s shot-blockers were drawn away from the rim, leaving the paint wide open for drives and cutters. Princeton shot at least 58% on two-pointers in both meetings this season, well above the Crimson’s season average of 43% allowed.
“We were trying our tails off to defend it,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said of Princeton’s backdoors. “It’s hard — they space you, they’ve got a center who can handle the ball and make those passes. Against our personnel right now, it’s hard for us to defend it.”
But the Crimson’s aggressiveness on the perimeter often paid off. Princeton committed 20 turnovers on 60 possessions, many of which allowed Harvard to open the floor in transition: The hosts turned eight second-half steals into 14 points. Meanwhile, the Crimson committed just seven turnovers of their own, overcoming less efficient shooting with more opportunities.
Fittingly, the game’s defining play came down to a Princeton miscue. With the score tied at 53 inside the three-minute mark, Hans Brase tried to find Clay Wilson at the top of the key, but Wilson cut toward the basket instead. Harvard point guard Siyani Chambers controlled the ball and took it the other way for a fast-break layup, giving the hosts the lead for good.
Chambers, as he is known to do, also slammed the door on Princeton’s hopes with a last-minute shot. Nursing a four-point lead with the shot clock winding down, he pulled up from inside the top of the key and swished a jumper to put Harvard up by six. “The coaching staff and my teammates really have confidence in me shooting that shot,” Chambers said. “We practice that shot every day in practice. It’s the shot I’m confident in.”
The game (which featured a classic Ivy Saturday refereeing performance, though head-scratchers favored both teams) contrasted Harvard’s star power against Princeton’s scoring depth. Only four players scored more than one basket for the Crimson, but all four were in double figures, led by another Wesley Saunders masterpiece (23 points, eight rebounds, three assists, four steals). Meanwhile, seven Tigers scored at least four points, led by Spencer Weisz’s 13. Mitch Henderson constantly juggled his team’s eight-man rotation (all eight played at least 15 minutes), but the lack of a go-to scorer led to lots of passes and turnovers. After halftime, the Tigers scored just 18 points on 29 possessions.
An upset could have kept Princeton on the fringe of the title race; instead, the Tigers fell to 5-4, a half-game ahead of the Lions for third place. Harvard is alone at 9-1, but it can’t rest easily with four games remaining. Its final road trip looms next weekend — including a Saturday visit to Columbia, which prior to upsetting Yale, nearly did the same at Harvard last week.