Historians like to talk about the moments that changed the world, the ripple effect of small pieces of time and seemingly small twists of fate that eventually led to something much larger.
Sports are a microcosm of life, at least sometimes. So consider this: with 2:33 left in Saturday’s first Ivy League Tournament (ever) semifinal, a red-hot Ryan Betley lined up for an open three-pointer. At the time, he was 7-9 from the field, 2-3 from behind the arc, and the shot looked good from the time it left his hand.
Already leading 57-53 and with The Palestra crowd ready to explode, it might have been the fatal blow to the game and Princeton’s NCAA Tournament hopes, despite a 17-game win streak and a perfect 14-0 conference regular season record. It have turned the heat up on an already ready to boil debate about the merits of the Ivy Tournament and the now kinetic rather than potential inequities that lie within it.
Not to mention the potential impact down the road of the programs: both looking to return to glory after their long reign has been broken by upstarts Yale and Harvard (who happened to be playing in the second game of the doubleheader). Neither team had been to the NCAA Tournament since 2012, and while Princeton returns plenty, to have seniors Spencer Weisz and Steven Cook (1-2 in Ivy Player of the Year competition) would be heartbreaking.
Meanwhile, while it would have put the future of the tournament in Philadelphia under a little bit more doubt, an NCAA appearance combined with A.J. Brodeur, Betley, and Devon Goodman with three years of eligibility left could be the start of something huge for Steve Donahue, even with the fits and starts that his regular season took en route to a 6-8 regular season Ivy record.
Betley’s shot hit the inside of the rim, rattled to the inside of the other, and then fell off. Devin Cannady (who would somehow end up with a career-high 10 rebounds) grabbed the board and was immediately fouled by Broduer. Cannady, who has missed five free throws all year, made both and the frantic finale that led to an eventual 72-64 Princeton win in overtime was underway.
“There was no way to prepare for this,” Princeton coach Mitch Henderson said. “It was just hanging in the air, you guys all talked about it. It was hard to replicate what we faced here, but we did just enough.”
Had Betley’s shot gone in, the moment that might be most remembered would never have happened. With time running out and the Tigers in somewhat of a panic trailing 59-57, they missed three consecutive shots, with Matt Howard finally pulling in a defensive rebound and getting fouled with 14 seconds left. Howard had given his heart and soul to Penn’s program through three lean years and a coaching change, and with a chance to seal the biggest victory of his career by a wide margin, he missed the front end of a one-and-one. Myles Stephens pounced on and eventually would be the one to save Princeton’s season, tipping in an Amir Bell miss at the other end to tie the game 59-59 with 5.4 seconds left. You feel for Howard, but that’s the way moments go.
“I knew the ball might come off, it did that a few times this season, so I knew I had to get to the rim,” Stephens, who has had a monster season, said. “Right place, right time, I guess.”
The overtime was all Princeton’s, meaning the real winners of the day was the Ivy League brass, who got the two biggest rivalries in the league, including the host team, a pair of extremely competitive games, and its regular season undefeated champion through to the finals, even if it took a harrowing, tight-rope walking route to get there. But that’s what made it so fun, no? As long as the acrobat doesn’t fall off. Then we can give the standard quotes about toughness, grit, etc. But if Betley makes that shot? Not so tough or gritty?
“I’m so proud of them, they figured out a way to get it done,” Henderson said.
Henderson is no rookie when it comes to the moments that define and change a program. He was part of one of the seismic moments in 1996, a sophomore when Princeton finally found a way to get Pete Carril an NCAA victory, upsetting defending national champ UCLA. Although Carril retired after that season, it was the first of three straight NCAA berths, a streak that finished in Henderson’s senior year with the Tigers going 26-1 in the regular season and earning a No. 5 seed in the Big Dance (and the last time they won a game there).
But had Penn made one more basket on a March night at Lehigh in 1996, who knows what history would have subsequently laid out. That season, Penn was the three-time defending Ivy champ and forced a playoff to attempt to win a fourth against the Tigers. Like Saturday, where Princeton did not lead in the entire 40 minutes of regulation, Penn forced overtime in an Ivy playoff without ever being on top. But Sydney Johnson – the last coach to lead Princeton to the NCAAs – hit a massive three with a minute left and the rest is, yes, history.
“I think that’s a really good team and they’re improving and they’re going to be really good going forward,” Henderson said of Penn after Saturday’s game.
Moments don’t necessarily have to define us, though, a lesson Penn might learn from the winners of the second game, Yale. The Bulldogs suffered a nightmarish 30 seconds two years ago at Dartmouth two seasons ago while chasing their first NCAA berth in 53 years, in which there were a couple of moments that could (should?) have seen the Bulldogs finish off a sole Ivy title. Instead, they were at The Palestra a week later, losing another heartbreaker to rival Harvard (where a shot rimmed out at the buzzer).
But life goes on. And Yale – even though it graduated a tremendous senior class that never quite tasted glory – dusted themselves off and finally got their NCAA berth a year later, winning a game once they got there and nearly taking down Duke in the second round. Not only that, here they are again this season, losing three starters from last year’s team, then having preseason Player of the Year Makai Mason go down before the season, and sitting one game away from their second straight NCAA Tournament after a half-century absence.
“For motivation, I watched the two games that we lost two years ago, including the one to Harvard in this building,” Yale coach James Jones said. “Just to take a look and get that pang again in my stomach, and maybe make me coach a little harder. It was a great college basketball game, and we were very fortunate to win.”
If they get a couple of moments to go their way, who knows?