The uniforms said “Yale” on the front, but you’ll be forgiven if the players inside them were unrecognizable to the fans at Jadwin Gym Saturday night. The defending champ Bulldogs again came in as possible Ivy League contenders, but did so like a Broadway show whose original cast had moved on to bigger and better things.
Yale’s only Ivy loss last season came on Feb.19 in Princeton, but of the 200 minutes used by James Jones in that contest, only 9 were on the floor Saturday, with Sam Downey being the only Yale player to participate in both games.
Yes, the Bulldogs were going to have to rebuild after graduating Justin Sears, Brandon Sherrod, Nick Victor, and Khaliq Ghani (who accounted for 122 of those minutes, and doesn’t even take into account Jack Montague, who was not on the team by then), but preseason Ivy Player of Year Makai Mason (37) broke his foot, and current captain Anthony Dallier (34) became ill after Friday’s game at Penn and did not play.
And still, when Alex Copeland hit a tough jumper with 3:04 left, the Bulldogs led 53-52 in a place where Princeton has lost just once since Yale beat them there two years ago.
Alas, it wasn’t to be in the end, as the Tigers – who have suffered plenty of injury adversity themselves, losing Henry Caruso and Hans Brase for the season – immediately went on an 11-0 run, led by Amir Bell and Myles Stephens, and went to 3-0 in the Ivy with a 66-58 victory.
.@Princeton_Hoops clutch down the stretch to move to 3-0 in @Ivy_Basketball play #PathToThePalestra pic.twitter.com/Oesrbz0me9
— IvyLeagueDigitalNet (@IvyLeagueNet) January 15, 2017
“That loss would have really hurt,” Princeton coach Mitch Henderson said. “Yale’s a really good team and that was a hell of a game. It’s a good win because it was really hard-fought. I think until Amir’s three went in it was up in the air. I tell the guys that’s why you play the game for moments like that where you celebrate and it all comes pouring out.”
There are no moral victories, particularly for a program that has been as successful as Yale in the Ivy League in recent years (which in itself is a testament to what they have accomplished), and the Bulldogs (9-6, 1-1) certainly had ample opportunity to steal the game which might have been huge down the road, but Jones – even in defeat – deserves a tip of the proverbial hat for his team’s effort.
Of course, he could also be comforted by the inaugural Ivy League Tournament in March, although both coaches said after the game that their top goal at the moment was to capture the regular season league crown. The Tigers (10-6, 3-0) proved they are probably favorite (although Harvard may have a say in that), but the Bulldogs – no matter who is wearing those uniforms – will not relinquish their crown without a fight.
“You just try to win every game,” Bell said. “Ivy League back-to-backs are going to be a fight against anyone, but they’re a great team. So that is a good one to get.”
What else did we learn in Princeton Saturday night?:
- Princeton got a lift when it needed it
The Tigers weren’t a long way from going 14-0 in the Ivy last season, with a 4-point loss at Yale and a heartbreaking loss at the buzzer at Harvard their only blemishes. They also lost in overtime at Virginia Tech in the NIT (one benefit of the Ivy Tournament is the regular-season champ getting an automatic bid if they lose).
Princeton also had defeats to Lehigh, BYU, and Monmouth this season where it couldn’t quite put it together down the stretch, so the response to Yale grabbing that lead late was a great sign. Bell had the next six points and finished with 17 points, marking the third straight contest he was in double figures after not doing so in the first 13 games.
Myles Stephens picked up his first career KenPom MVP with 19 points (9-15 FG) and 7 rebounds, and was a big part of a smothering Princeton defense that allowed Yale very few clear sights at the basket. The Tigers will need people to step up in the inevitable close games with Harvard, and of course, those massive games at The Palestra in March.
Princeton went just 1-15 from three in the first half, with several rattling in and out, but recovered to go 6-9 after halftime, including a couple of big ones down the stretch.
“I think they just went in,” Henderson said. “I really felt like we got great shots. Maybe there was some tension at the beginning of the game. But we did do a good job of getting to the basket in the second half, so maybe that opened things up.”
It’s also noteworthy that the Tigers have played very slowly in their six-game win streak. After being middle of the pack in tempo (155th and 140th) the last two seasons, Henderson has gone back to his roots, and Princeton is 286th and dropping this season, with their latest wins at 66, 61, 57, 64, 66, and 66 possessions, respectively. Part of that is losing Caruso and Brase, but regardless of tempo, it seems to have helped their defense.
2) Yale in search of offense
The Bulldogs have been very consistent under Jones on the defensive end, and are still 86th in efficiency. But the loss of all those players has been felt most on offense and Saturday was a prime example. Princeton dared Yale to go inside to Sam Downey and Blake Reynolds, and they combined for just 9 points in 53 minutes, with Reynolds turning the ball over 5 times. Trey Phills played 34 minutes and was also excellent on the defensive end, but is shooting just 5-19 from three (1-5 Saturday) on the season.
Princeton essentially figured that out and chased Miye Oni into a 1-10 shooting performance (1-8 from three) by making him go toward the basket. That left two players to shoulder the load, and Alex Copeland was outstanding, scoring 21 points, while Jordan Bruner was 5-6 from the field and scored 15 points.
Obviously, Dallier will help, but they’ll probably need one or two others to step up against the Princetons and Harvards to repeat.
3) Key plays
With Princeton leading 50-49 and 5:11 left, Steven Cook missed a layup under pressure and Pete Miller was able to save it before going out of bounds, sending it through a sea of Yale players, and allowing Cook to pick it back up, score and get fouled.
Princeton 52, Yale 49 | 3:51 2nd
Pete Miller tapped the rebound, Steven Cook drew the and-1 chance, and Princeton's up 3. pic.twitter.com/DbjbetSdNu
— Princeton Basketball (@Princeton_Hoops) January 15, 2017
Then, after Copeland gave Yale a 53-52 lead, the Bulldogs got confused and didn’t cover Bell, who raced to the basket for a three-point play just 8 seconds later. Yale would never lead again.
“It was always a few possessions here or there,” Jones said. “It was a good college basketball game, but we showed our youth and inexperience in some ways. We have so many sophomores and freshmen playing, some things that when you’re a junior or a senior, you clear up. In a close game like that, it’s going to tip in their favor, just because they have juniors and seniors that have been through the battles and been tested. Alex made a great move to give us the lead and then we get mixed up going from zone to man and Amir Bell gets a layup. Those types of things.”
Would the outcome have been different without those two plays? Who knows? But those are growing pains for the inexperienced Bulldogs.
Bonus) Big day for Copeland and family
Copeland, a rising star in the Ivy League, led all scorers with 21 points and did it in front of his family, including twin sister Shea, who happens to be a student-athlete at Princeton (track and field). Copeland’s dad is a Dartmouth grad (mom went to Boston College), so his family does have 37.5% of the Ivy League covered at this point.
“It’s a little bit special, to be honest,” Copeland said. “But we go into every game trying to win, and I do the same. I tried not to think about it too much, but knowing my sister’s here and my family’s here definitely makes me want to beat the Tigers a little more.”