CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – It’s early yet, but already Princeton needs help. After losing 82-76 at Harvard on Friday night, the Tigers are in a hole that will be very difficult to climb out of.
The final score of the game showed a six-point margin, but the game wasn’t quite that close. In a similar vein, the Tigers’ Ivy League record shows 0-2, but the Tigers are in more trouble than you might think. It might be early to talk about this, but the Tigers already don’t control their own destiny.
Princeton had a good run through non-league play. They went 12-2 with wins over the likes of George Mason, Bucknell, Rutgers, Penn State and Kent State. While Harvard has been regarded as an almost prohibitive favorite in the Ivy League, the Tigers’ non-league performance was reason to think they might give Harvard more of a run for their money than first thought. They won at home and on the road along the way, and while it wasn’t a bunch of world-beaters they played some good teams along the way.
But playing on the road in league play can lead to surprising things, and the Tigers lost their opener at Penn. Now, with an 0-2 mark heading into Saturday night’s game at Dartmouth, the Tigers are two games down in the loss column with just one meeting left with Harvard.
“Didn’t want to start this way, but we try to win every night,” said senior guard T.J. Bray, who led the Tigers with a game-high 26 points on 9-13 shooting and handed out six assists. “We dug ourselves a big hole, and we’ve just got to start fighting and clawing our way out of it.”
Near the halfway point of the second half might have been when the game got clinched. Princeton had just cut the lead back down to eight at 56-48 when Kyle Casey got a dunk. The Tigers tried to go quickly up the court for a shot, but missed in an out-of-character possession, and the Crimson came right back up the court for a three-pointer by Laurent Rivard right in front of his bench. All of a sudden Harvard led 61-48 and might have knocked Princeton off the ropes.
“It’s tough to come back against them,” said head coach Mitch Henderson. “Too many turnovers, too many missed free throws, and not enough boxing out.”
Not only that, but the Tigers allowed the Crimson to shoot 63.6 percent from the field in the second half. The Tigers had 16 turnovers, missed ten free throws (Harvard missed 13 and helped prolong the game a bit as a result) and gave up a key stickback late off a missed free throw that helped seal the game.
After the key stretch, the Tigers struggled for a few minutes, and as was the case all night long, they could never muster up much momentum. They stayed with Harvard right up until the Crimson got the lead up past a couple of possessions. They would finally start to rally late, aided in part by some missed free throws by Harvard, but it was too late and they didn’t do enough. They got within four at one point, but you never sensed they had enough of a run in them to make it a ballgame.
Now Princeton needs help if they are to have any shot at a league title. The Ivy League is better overall, so someone could knock off Harvard along the way – but someone else could also knock off Princeton, too. And given how impressive Harvard looked against Dartmouth, including a 30-point romp in Hanover less than a week earlier, it’s hard to imagine Princeton getting the help they now need.
Henderson is naturally trying to keep positive, as are the players. They know how early it is and how a lot can happen. But they’re also aware of math and reality, including that they have to bounce back quickly with another game coming up or fall even further in the hole.