Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Princeton basketball is officially back

After beating Harvard in a one-game playoff, the Tigers are headed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004.

Princeton basketball is officially back


NEW HAVEN, Conn. - I still remember the first time I watched Douglas Davis in person.

It was February 17, 2009, the first Penn-Princeton game of his career. Davis was a much-hyped freshman at the time, as was his Quakers counterpart Zack Rosen.

At the start of that night, I wrote: “If this game is to return to prominence, perhaps these two young men are the ones to lead the way.”

Tonight, Davis fulfilled his side of the bargain.

The Philadelphia native hit a buzzer-beating jumper to clinch a 63-62 win over Harvard at Yale’s John J. Lee Amphitheater, sending the Tigers to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004.

It was a pulsating contest from start to finish, better even than the double-overtime Harvard-Penn game at the Palestra last month. The arena known fondly among Ivy League fans as “The Church” for its Gothic-style architecture was packed, with 2,652 fans filling almost every available space. Even the standing-room balconies were jammed.

The only unused space was a small island of bleachers in between the two student sections. When it was announced that the crowd would be split in half by the midcourt line, many observers thought it to not be the best idea. But it worked well in the end, as the crimson and orange masses shouted back and forth at each other.

There was even a moment of camaraderie before the game, as the two student sections engaged in a “Yale! Sucks!” call-and-response chant.

On the floor, both teams took turns imposing their styles and wills. Big men Keith Wright and Kareem Maddox dictated much of the play. Harvard’s Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry had their moments, as did Princeton’s Dan Mavraides and Ian Hummer.

But in the latter stages of the game, Davis took control. With 6:23 left in the game, he hit a long two from right in front of the Princeton student section to bring the Tigers within 50-48. Then, on Princeton’s next possession, Davis hit a three-pointer from the top left side to put his team up 51-50 with 5:50 remaining.

That was Princeton’s first lead since being up 20-18 with 8:26 left in the first half.

From that point on, there were four ties and three lead changes. The final two swings came in the very last moments of the game.

After a layup by Ian Hummer gave Princeton a 61-60 lead with 38 seconds on the clock, Brandyn Curry edged Harvard ahead 62-61 with a layup in the lane. Princeton came down the floor, and a driving layup by Davis was blocked out of bounds by Wright with 2.8 seconds left. Tigers coach Sydney Johnson called time, and got out his whiteboard.

As a player, Johnson led Princeton to a playoff victory over Penn in 1996, and helped the Tigers famously upset UCLA in the NCAA Tournament. This time, Johnson wasn’t on the floor. But the play he drew up did in that timeout was as effective as anything he ever did when wearing a jersey.

The ball was inbounded to Davis. The clock started, the fans rose, and the noise rose with them.

The rest, in the truest sense of the phrase, was history.

Here are some highlights from the teams’ postgame press conferences. You can listen to the audio tracks at the bottom of the post.

Princeton coach Sydney Johnson on what returning to the NCAA Tournament means to him:

These guys have seen me cry, maybe too many times. So I’m not going to go down that road. But it does mean a lot to me. I met my wife at Princeton, I met coach [Pete] Carril, John Thompson III, Armond Hill, Howard Levy, Joe Scott, Bill Carmody. They mentored me.

I have best friends, my roomates, my teammates, and they were all here. I love this program. So to be able to be alongside these young men representing the Ivy League, it just means everything, because that’s our standard.

I think Harvard’s really, really good, and I want to give credit to them. But I do think we’re in a different - we’re kind of over here in a corner where there’s an expectation to win. That’s a different a responsibility. These guys have been carrying so much weight. So I’m just so pleased for them to be able to finalize that dream, because it’s a grind. It’s a big challenge.

That’s the emotion that comes into play: feeling good for Armond Hill, and Kit Mueller, and Bob Roma, and Bill Ryan. Great players. Bill Bradley. And kind of joining them in some way, winning another championship and being able to go on to the Big Dance.

Johnson on whether Harvard deserves an at-large NCAA Tournament bid, which would give the Ivy League two bids for the first time in its history:

I know they deserve one, and that’s us. I don’t know. I really don’t. It’s not my concern. We’re going. We earned the automatic bid, we don’t have to worry about anything else. We’re going.

Johnson on whether Harvard is a rival of Princeton:

I consider them a terrific team. Our rival is Penn. That’s not going to change. We’ve got 26 championships, they have one less. So that’s our rival. I think that Harvard has positioned themselves to be relevant in the league, but Princeton-Penn, that runs deep, and I wouldn’t personally have it any other way.

Princeton guard Dan Mavraides on his reaction to Douglas Davis’ game-winning shot:

I didn’t really know what was going on when the ball went in. I think I might have blanked out, and the next thing I knew I was on the ground screaming. So it was a great feeling. I saw Doug was in the corner and I put it in his hands, and Doug has an amazing midrange game.

It was an amazing shot, but I think he makes that seven out of 10 times, to be honest. So when it went in, it was almost like my life was flashing before my eyes - at least my four years here. From the worst team in Princeton history all the way to champions of the Ivy League.

Harvard coach Tommy Amaker on whether the Crimson deserve an at-large NCAA Tournament bid:

I have no idea. I don’t know how that process works. We’ve had a tremendous year, and we’re very pleased and proud of that. Obviously we’re heartbroken right now, and the powers that be will make those cases and make those decisions.

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Soft Pretzel Logic is Philly.com's college sports blog, with a primary focus on the University of Pennsylvania. You'll also see coverage of the Big 5, other major college sports events in the region, and the annual Penn Relays track and field meet.

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