Twenty minutes after Saturday’s game ended, as Princeton’s players were wandering out of locker room to mingle with friends and family, the lights briefly went out at Leede Arena. It was an apt metaphor for their Ivy League championship hopes: At that very moment, Yale was making free throws in the final minute at Columbia, securing the solo Ivy League title and the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
So although the Tigers finished their final full weekend on a high note, dispatching Dartmouth 84-65, it was a bittersweet evening. “We’re not celebrating like we probably would a normal win,” Steven Cook said.
Princeton made Yale earn its NCAA tournament bid the hard way. On the heels of a crushing last-possession loss at Harvard, the Tigers leapt out to an early 25-11 lead, allowing the league to focus its full attention on Levien Gym.
“That was a really difficult loss last night for us, but I love this team, I love the way they responded,” Princeton coach Mitch Henderson said. “I think we found out a little bit of what we’re made of. They can respond in a moment when you have no control over what’s going to happen.”
The Tigers (11-2 Ivy) splashed eight three-pointers in the first half, five of which came from Cook. The junior’s shooting has been uneven this season — he went 2-7 the previous day at Harvard — but he torched Dartmouth (4-10 Ivy) for 27 points on 9-13 shooting with three steals. 22 of those points came before halftime, including a thunderous dunk off a backdoor pass from Spencer Weisz.
“I kind of wish I’d had this game last night,” Cook said. “Guys were looking for me, Spencer gave me some great backdoor cuts. You appreciate when you’re making shots and other guys are looking for you.”
After scoring 26 points against Penn a night earlier, Dartmouth’s Evan Boudreaux spent Saturday’s game with his foot in a boot. The Big Green’s offense struggled to get going without its star rookie, scoring .66 points per possession in the first half en route to a 44-23 deficit.
But Dartmouth awoke after halftime, giving its fans reasons to celebrate in the season finale. Connor Boehm closed his Ivy career with 18 points and seven rebounds. Malik Gill showed off his unique talents one last time, finishing with three crafty assists, two steals and nine points. Twelve players scored for the hosts, and only seniors Boehm and Gill played more than 21 minutes.
The Tigers’ lead was never seriously threatened, as their offense stayed hot in the second half. Weisz finished with a career-high nine assists, and Henry Caruso, Pete Miller, and Amir Bell scored in double figures, each shooting at least 50% from the field. Despite 15 turnovers, Princeton scored 1.15 ppp, maintaining its place as the league’s most efficient offense.
If Princeton beats Penn in its regular-season finale Tuesday, it will become the first 12-2 team to not win at least a share of the Ivy title since 2003. With a top-40 RPI and a KenPom rank of #60, the Tigers are likely to earn a bid to the NIT. Of course, that’s not the tournament they dreamed of at the start of the weekend.
“Based on our history, based on the way Princeton basketball’s been in the past, a successful season is the Ivy League championship,” Cook said. “It’s definitely a good season, but our goal every year is an Ivy League championship.”