The lead was four.
Harvard freshman forward Chris Lewis had just hit a jumper to give the hosts their largest edge since holding a 12-7 advantage. The clock read 1:19, and the Crimson had the momentum, having outscored Princeton 27-10 after coming out flat following intermission.
Lewis was in the midst of the best Ivy League game of his short college career. The Alpharetta, Ga., native, the highest-rated recruit in Harvard history, had shown flashes of his seemingly limitless talent earlier in the season. He was unstoppable against Boston College in December, racking up 24 points on 9-of-12 shooting and knocking down all four of his free throws in a 74-66 win.
“I just thought [his] effort certainly was big for us, a huge shot in the arm, and a presence on the interior,” said Harvard coach Tommy Amaker after the game.
However, the first-year had struggled since Ivy League play commenced. He combined for just 16 points against Cornell, Columbia, and Penn but appeared to be making up for it with a strong performance in his team’s biggest game.
The four-point lead with 79 ticks to play felt insurmountable. The teams had been trading baskets or stops for most of the game’s final stretch. Neither squad had held an edge greater than four since the 5:59 mark. If Lewis’ bucket wasn’t the dagger, then a stop on the other end surely would be.
March 10, 2016.
It was Housing Day in Cambridge when the Ivy League’s Council of Presidents announced a decision that would change the landscape of basketball in the Ancient Eight for years to come. The league announced on that cool, cloudy Thursday that, beginning in 2017, it would be adding a four-team conference tournament at the Palestra in Philadelphia for an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The decision was one of the biggest that the league had made in recent memory. #14gametournament was being replaced by #pathtothepalestra.
“This is a terrific opportunity to showcase the depth of our league—and to provide our student-athletes with the always meaningful experience of playing in the postseason,” wrote Amaker in a statement after the announcement was made.
The addition of the conference tournament added a new level of intrigue for a season that was already full of storylines. Princeton entered the season returning 99 percent of its minutes and scoring from a team that went 22-7 the year before. Harvard brought in the highest-rated recruiting class in league history and had three-time All-Ivy point guard Siyani Chambers returning from injury. Yale had key players coming back from a team that upset Baylor in the NCAA Tournament. The teams were picked one-two-three in the conference.
The introduction of the tournament received both praise and criticism from coaches, players, and media pundits. To some, the idea of increased revenue and media exposure and the potential for two bids to the NCAA Tournament made the decision to add a conference tournament a timely one. Opponents argued that the league always sent its best team to March Madness as it was and that an upset at the Palestra would do the league more harm than good on the national level.
Talks of the Palestra took a backseat when the Tigers arrived in Cambridge for Saturday evening’s showdown. “Tumultuous” would be one word to describe the Crimson’s five nonconference games leading up to the Princeton matchup.
Harvard’s freshman-heavy rotation had shown its talent as well as its inexperience. First-year wing Justin Bassey had a coming-out party in the team’s first matchup with Dartmouth but went just 1-of-5 from the field the second time facing the Big Green. Freshman guard Bryce Aiken willed his squad to a comeback win at Cornell and emerged as the Crimson’s alpha dog when the game was on the line.
“Obviously they’re comfortable putting the ball in my hands, and I do whatever I can to get the W,” said Aiken after hitting a dagger on the road against Cornell.
For as many highlights as the freshman class had produced, there were also reminders that the seven first-years were just a year removed from high school. A night after downing Cornell, Aiken and classmate Seth Towns combined to go 7-of-25 from the field in a loss at Columbia.
While Harvard bounced between ups and downs, the Tigers had cake-walked through their first four Ivy contests. A first-half scare at Dartmouth on Friday night was preceded by an opening home win against Penn, a thumping of Brown, and a statement win over a talented Yale team.
Despite the looming conference tournament, the teams’ matchup at Princeton a month later, and the fact that the Crimson had yet to put together a full 40 minutes in conference play, all eyes focused on Lavietes Pavilion on that brisk Saturday night. It was Alumni Weekend, and ESPN3 had made the trip to see the two teams that had combined for five of the last six Ivy League championships.
It was the Tigers’ experience versus the Crimson’s raw talent. A Princeton team with seemingly unlimited range versus a Harvard one that had already had 11 different players score in double figures. The visitors’ consistency versus the hosts’ uncanny ability to fall behind and come back. Mitch Henderson’s disciplined Princeton offense versus Amaker’s defense-first mentality.
Any notion of the game being a blowout or a shootout dissapeared very early. The Tigers missed seven of their first 11 shots while the Crimson turned the ball over four times in the contest’s first 10 minutes. The first half’s under-four media timeout saw the teams knotted at 19.
It’s not easy to miss Princeton’s Myles Stephens. The Lawrenceville, N.J., native stands 6’5” and is a chiseled 205 pounds. Stephens is arguably the conference’s best defender. However, when scouting the Tigers, it’s easy to overlook the wing, especially on the offensive end.
Stephens is often overshadowed by classmate Devin Cannady, the prolific lead guard who rarely sees a shot that he doesn’t like and is always capable of a big game, like the 29-point performance he laid on Brown.
“One of the keys for us, Cannady—that was a big assignment for us,” Amaker said. “He’s such a good player and such a good shooter.”
Cannady is the slasher while seniors Steven Cook and Spencer Weisz are the snipers. Cook was second on the team in scoring as a junior, and his strong showing to end the season helped make him an All-Ivy League honorable mention. Weisz landed on the All-Ivy second team as a junior, topped the Tigers in three-pointers, and was the conference’s leader in assist-to-turnover ratio.
While Stephens was the team’s most important cog on defense, he was Henderson’s fourth or fifth option on the other end. The sophomore drained a three out of a timeout to spark an 11-5 Princeton run to end the first half. It would not be the last time that Stephens would need to come through with the clock winding down.
For Harvard, a six-point halftime deficit was like a 10-point lead. The Crimson had found itself trailing at halftime in four of its five conference games. Harvard was down 19-4 against Penn on Friday night but held the Quakers to 6-of-29 shooting in the second half and ended the game on a 65-40 run.
“We just talked about trying to inch our way and scratch and claw our way,” said Amaker of the comeback against Penn. “We were shell-shocked there at the very beginning. I just thought that we calmed the waters with the leadership of Siyani [and] our older guys were settling us down. I thought that made all the difference in the world.”
Against Cornell, the Crimson was trailing by seven at halftime and did not hold a second half lead until it was up 59-58. In its home matchup with Dartmouth, Harvard entered the locker room down one and stormed back to win by 14.
"We just talked about trying to inch our way and scratch and claw our way. We were shell-shocked there at the very beginning," Amaker said.
The Tigers did not miss a beat after intermission, however, coming out on a 10-3 run to grow its lead to 13. But the Crimson fought back with free throws and high-percentage looks around the basket to get back within six with just under 12 minutes to play. Then the ice set in.
Amaker has always prided his teams on defense. Steve Moundou-Missi ’15 won Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year as a senior for a team that conceded just 57.6 points per game. Agunwa Okolie ’16 took home the award last season as Harvard held opponents to 40.6 percent shooting from the field.
By February, it was evident that Bassey had carved out a role in Amaker’s rotation. The 10th-year head coach lauded the freshman for his hard work in practice, defensive versatility, and ability to affect the game in a number of ways.
“With Justin starting off, it’s his defense,” Chambers said. “Even though he’s one of the freshmen, he’s one of our best wing defenders. His defense on that end of the floor really helps us.”
As Ivy League play heated up, Bassey’s minutes increased. It became apparent that he was growing into the role that Okolie and Wesley Saunders ’15 had occupied for the past two years—guarding the other team’s top offensive perimeter player.
Bassey was by no means the crown jewel of Harvard’s freshman class. Aiken, Lewis, Towns, and Robert Baker were ranked in ESPN’s top 100 recruits or 247Sports’ top 150. Entering the season, Bassey appeared to fit the mold of junior Andre Chatfield or a young Okolie—an athletic, defense-first wing who did not need to shoulder much of an offensive load. Okolie played nearly 25 minutes a game as a junior but only posted 4.3 points per contest. Chatfield almost exclusively saw the floor last year as a defensive substitution for then-freshman guard Corey Johnson.
After not playing a single minute in the team’s game against Stanford in Shanghai, Bassey was inserted into the starting lineup against Fisher. He scored 14 points and became a fixture in the rotation. Against Princeton, he knew he would have his hands full against an offense that was averaging more than 73 points per game in Ivy play.
Any rhythm that the two teams had on offense disappeared as the under-12 media timeout approached. After Cook hit a layup at the 11:29 mark to put the visitors up eight, the Crimson and Tigers would not hit another field goal for another 181 seconds of game action. Aiken missed a pair of threes, senior center Zena Edosomwan turned the ball over, and the team committed three fouls before Johnson finally hit a triple.
For Princeton, the woes lasted even longer. Cannady began the brick parade with a missed three. The Tigers would miss three more triples, a jumper, a lay-up, and a tip-in before Stephens finally hit a triple with 5:59 to play. The cold stretch that saw five different players miss shots was uncharacteristic for a Princeton team that relied on offensive balance. Bassey and company were doing something that no Ivy League team had been able to do—slow down the Tigers.
Chambers scored six of his team’s next eight points after Princeton’s drought ended. The Harvard co-captain was on a roll—he had 17 points on 5-of-7 shooting. More importantly, the game was tied with 2:32 to play.
“I thought he played a tremendous game,” Amaker said. “His floor game was outstanding. He played like a senior point guard should play. It was nice to see how well he orchestrated our team and commanded our attack on both ends of the floor.”
Chambers’ partner-in-crime, Aiken, struggled to find his stroke for much of the evening. However, the freshman kept shooting. He made his second three of the game on what was his eighth attempt to give the Crimson a three-point edge with 2:09 to play. It was the team’s first lead since a 17-14 advantage in the first half. An Amir Bell free throw and Lewis’ jumper made it 54-50.
A stop would likely end the contest. With his team up four with 68 seconds to play, Aiken sent a struggling Weisz to the line. The senior made one-of-two to get Princeton within one possession at 54-51. Aiken handed the ball back to the Tigers and gave the guests a chance to tie with 41 ticks left. Rather than holding for a three or taking a quick two, Cannady took a quick three. The shot missed, and Princeton fouled immediately.
Lewis, who was 1-of-3 on the night from the charity stripe, needed to make one to make it a two-possession game. The freshman bricked both.
Still down three, the Tigers went the quick-two route to get within one with 21 seconds remaining. Stephens fouled Aiken, who made the ensuing free throws. Harvard was back up by three with 15 seconds to play.
Now Princeton needed a triple. Weisz and Cannady were the team’s three-point specialists, but both were 0-for-3 from deep in the second half. Cook had the hot hand—the senior had 10 of his team’s 23 second half points and had not missed a shot since before intermission.
Bell brought the ball up the floor, and Cannady, Cook, and Weisz all lined up to the junior’s right. Bell dribbled that direction, and Stephens slipped in front of his teammate before the three-point arc. Aiken and Towns pressed up to double-team Bell, leaving Stephens wide open on the left wing. Bell delivered the pass.
Despite being down three with nine seconds to play, Stephens made a beeline for the hole as soon as he caught the pass. Bassey left Cook and headed into the lane. Stephens elevated, laid the ball off the glass, and absorbed the contact from Bassey.
The Harvard freshman laid on the ground as the ball came out of the net and a referee assessed him his second personal foul of the evening. Stephens, a 62 percent free throw shooter, was a make at the line away from sending the game into overtime.
The sellout crowd was stunned. The Tigers had scored four of the game’s last five points and now had a chance to extend the game another five minutes. The Crimson had had its chances to put the game away—Aiken had fouled, Lewis had missed a pair at the line, Aiken had turned the ball over, and Harvard had not made a field goal since Lewis’ at the 1:19 mark.
But now, all eyes were on Stephens. The free throw was long, but Lewis was unable to get his body in front of Cook. The Princeton senior corralled the rebound, went up through traffic, and used the backboard to guide in his layup. Tigers by one.
“We practice these situations in practice, but there’s nothing like the game,” Chambers said.
The Crimson, now needing a bucket with three seconds to play, took a timeout. Amaker subbed in Baker to inbound. The 6’10” freshman threw a baseball pass past halfcourt. Lewis elevated and snatched the toss out of the air, pivoted, and found Johnson, who was 2-of-5 from long range on the evening. The sophomore had a clean look just right of center. The ball hung in the air as Baker sprinted down the floor and the other nine players watched.
It clanked off the back rim. Princeton had done the seemingly impossible.
“I don’t know how you draw it up any worse than that,” Amaker said.
—Staff writer Stephen J. Gleason can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.