Princeton’s 25th NCAA tournament bid was a long time coming.
Over the course of Mitch Henderson’s first five seasons (2012-16), his Tigers had the Ivy League’s best scoring margin. But they never made the big dance, watching from home as Harvard and Yale earned every bid instead. Princeton had close calls, finishing one game back in 2013 and 2016, two out in 2012 and 2015. Last year’s squad was the best runner-up in Ivy history, a legitimately great team that faced an even greater challenger in Yale.
Freed of such competition this year, the Tigers rolled through the Ivy League at a perfect 14-0, backed up by an efficiency margin of +0.22 points per possession (up there with the best of the modern era). But there was a new hurdle — the first-ever Ivy League Tournament — which became bigger when host Penn earned the 4-seed.
Princeton was six seconds from going home empty in the semifinal, but it survived. After another tight half Sunday afternoon, the top seed was unstoppable after halftime for a 71-59 win. Six years to the day after earning their last NCAA tournament bid, the Tigers are finally dancing once again.
“I heard from a lot of coaches that have won their league, friends of mine that have a tournament. After we won yesterday, multiple different guys said how hard it is, when you’re the champ, to win your first-round game. And man, that was true,” Henderson said. “You’re the target, and it’s hard to work against that, mentally. So this feels really good.”
Defense fueled Princeton’s unbeaten Ivy season, as well as its semifinal victory over the Quakers. But in the final, the Tigers won in their old-fashioned way — by simply shooting lights-out. Coming out of halftime with a two-point lead, they scored 21 points on their first 11 possessions, controlling the game for good. Yale managed 1.05 points per possession — second-best of Princeton’s 16 Ivy opponents this year — but it surrendered a blistering 1.27.
For the second straight night, Myles Stephens was the Tigers’ hero. Princeton’s local product showed early on why he was the Defensive Player of the Year, stuffing shifty guard Alex Copeland. His impact was even stronger on the other end, where the sophomore scored a game-high 23 points off of tough drives, cuts and threes.
But the core of Princeton’s championship team was years in the making. Steven Cook and Spencer Weisz, both first-team All-Ivy selections, bridged the Tigers’ old and new eras — from patience and passing to one-on-one scoring; from sweet-shooting offense to shutdown defense — and led the way to the Ivy league’s first 16-0 season.
“They have a veteran crew. When Steven Cook and Spencer Weisz and Pete Miller were freshmen, they were not a very good defensive team. Those guys have learned, they got better and better, and that’s what you do,” Yale coach James Jones said. “They’re a senior-laden team. That’s what propelled them to all their close wins. It’s almost impossible how they won some close games — like last night, how did they win that?”
Weisz had a poor shooting weekend (6-24 in total), but he made plays his usual way, inching into the lane and finding shooters for eight assists against Yale. Cook finished with 15 points, from three treys and a powerful baseline dunk-and-one. With so many threats on the floor, opponents have nowhere to hide a weak defender or a lazy rotation — as Yale learned at the worst time.
“Offensively, we try to take advantage of mismatches. Spencer and Steve, also Amir [Bell] — we put each other in position to make plays, and my teammates do a good job of that,” Stephens said. “Whether it’s posting up or driving to the rim, kicking out or finishing at the rim, we really try to take advantage of that, and that helped us in this weekend.”
Yale gave its best effort in the first half, leading by as many as seven points. The Bulldogs were smart, feeding Sam Downey in the post and making crisp passes to beat double-teams. And they were also flashy, dunking on consecutive possessions and getting their own ferocious blocks.
But the Tigers were too much to handle in the second half. Three of the last four Ivy League representatives won their first-round game in the NCAA tournament, and Princeton looks every bit as capable.
“The way we’re playing right now, I think it’s hard to stop us,” Cook said. “If we keep playing as consistently on offense and the defensive end, I think wherever we end up in the tournament, we can be trouble.”