Harvard 73, Princeton 71: Steeves Wounds Tigers’ Title Hopes

The clock at Lavietes Pavilion showed seven seconds, with Princeton inbounding under its own basket down by two points. Yet it felt like the Tigers were exactly where they wanted to be. After trailing by as many as 10 points in the second half, they had quickly stormed back. On the last possession, they needed just one more bit of devil magic — just as they’d done at Penn and Columbia — to extend or win the game.

Devin Cannady, Princeton’s late-game hero, drove past Corbin Miller and fed a cutting Myles Stephens from the baseline. Stephens dropped the pass but still got off a shot at the rim, only to see it swatted over his head by Patrick Steeves. Steven Cook picked up the loose ball, released a second shot juuust in the nick of time, and watched as it rolled tantalizingly off the rim, sealing a Harvard victory.

“A lot of teams just try to come down and make the game-winning three, and we said, let’s get to the basket,” assistant coach Brian Earl said. “We can take it to OT, we can get a good look, and we did. We had a couple bobbles in there, and it just didn’t go our way. I think if you’re talking percentage-wise, that’s the best thing we could’ve gotten, is two pretty wide open looks at the basket.”

All five Tigers keeled over in unison, remaining frozen in space as the hosts ran off in celebration. Their despair reflected the high stakes of the Ivy League’s final weekend. The loss dropped Princeton to 10-2, an hour after Yale improved to 12-1 with a blowout of Cornell. Yale is now guaranteed at least a share of the conference title.

Princeton still has a path to the NCAA tournament: Wins over Dartmouth and Penn to close the season, plus a Columbia victory over Yale on Saturday, would force an Ivy League playoff. But that path is now partly out of the Tigers’ hands.

Cannady had already delivered some magic for the Tigers. In the final minute, the rookie blew by Corey Johnson for a clean layup, tying the score at 71-71 with 32 seconds remaining.

Harvard, per coach Tommy Amaker’s custom, kept the game in rhythm without calling timeout. Steeves held the ball at the top of the key, winding down the clock, and then drove to his left. Amir Bell helped over to swipe at the ball, but he got flesh instead, sending Steeves to the foul line. The senior calmly knocked down both shots—his 24th and 25th points — providing the eventual margin of victory.

“I looked over at coach like, ‘What do you want us to run? Run a set for Zena [Edosomwan] or whatever?’ And he was like, ‘Clear it out,’” Steeves said. “In-and-out, I practice that move all the time, and I got fouled. Coach says if you get fouled every offensive possession, you can’t get anything better than that. I went to the line and buried them.”

Princeton has had the second-best defense in Ivy play, and Harvard the second-worst offense. But the hosts turned the tables in the first half, scoring 1.34 points per possession to take a 43-35 lead. The Crimson did most of their damage in the paint, bolstered by Zena Edosomwan, who missed the teams’ first meeting with a thigh injury. Princeton has defended the rim well this year, but on Friday Harvard shot 11-18 inside the restricted area, scoring on a mixture of drives, post-ups and put-backs.

“We play inside-out, and that’s what we have always tried to do,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “We were really determined to get the ball to the paint, and get the ball to the rim. And I thought we were good on the offensive glass as well.”

Harvard_Princeton_shot_chart_20160304

A basket from Edosomwan — who finished with 16 points and 14 rebounds, his 11th double-double — extended the Crimson’s lead to 10 points. But Princeton reeled off an 11-0 run, sparked by consecutive steals from smaller lineups. Henry Caruso beat everyone down the floor after a missed shot and made a goaltended layup, giving the visitors their first lead five minutes into the second half.

“We sat back a little too much in the beginning of the game, and let them get out and feel comfortable,” Earl said. “We went into halftime and said, the games where we’ve been down, we’ve been aggressive defensively and pressured up. We’re going to make shots, and we did … we just couldn’t keep pushing through. We had to sustain it, and we just let it trail off.”

Both teams traded spurts through one of the most entertaining halves of this Ivy season. Harvard took a seven-point lead; Princeton pulled back within one. Harvard took a five-point lead at the under-four timeout; Princeton scored on its next two possessions. Finally, an after-timeout set gave Steven Cook a wide open three-pointer, which he buried for a 69-68 lead.

Princeton nearly forced a shot clock violation on the next possession, but Corbin Miller’s heave bounced back to him, giving the Crimson another possession. Agunwa Okolie lobbed an entry pass to Edosomwan, who scored and drew a foul, giving the Crimson a two-point lead.

That ultimately set the stage for Steeves, the night’s hero. In November, Steeves was playing in his first collegiate game after injuries shackled him to the bench for three seasons. By December, Harvard was running designed plays for him in crunch time of the Diamond Head Classic. His efficiency had dropped in Ivy play, where he’d scored double figures in only four of 12 games. But he exploded for a career-high 25 points on 9-13 shooting Friday, driving past big defenders, posting up smaller ones and hitting three timely treys.

“One year, two years ago, I never would’ve thought I would be in that position,” Steeves said. “Coach said at the end of the game, he hadn’t called that four-low [set] for anybody else for a while except Wesley [Saunders]. It’s more of him trusting me than the actual making of the play. In the beginning of the game, I wasn’t having a great game—I lost a loose ball, turned it over, wasn’t grabbing defensive rebounds — and he just trusted me, left me in the game, and trusted me to take the last shot.”

His biggest fans were on the Yale bus, which was already en route to Columbia when Steeves made his final free throws. If the Bulldogs take care of business tomorrow and reach their first NCAA tournament in two generations, Steeves might become a Yale legend — much as Gabas Maldunas went down in Harvard lore last season.

“I have a couple buddies on Yale, so I’m going to make sure to reach out to them,” Steeves said. “It’s kind of fitting — Dartmouth gave us a chance last year, so we’ve got to put the scales back in balance, I guess.”

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