Five seconds to go, tie game. A desperately needed rivalry win at stake. A potential turning point in a season plagued by seven consecutive losses.
These were the circumstances for senior captain Miles Jackson-Cartwright when he went to the line to try and break a 74-74 tie against Princeton Saturday night at the Palestra.
Two swishes. Then a Princeton turnover. And just like that, Penn had secured its most thrilling – and perhaps most important win – in a long time.
Penn’s big men sparked the 77-74 win for the Quakers (3-10, 1-0 Ivy), marking just the Red and Blue’s second victory in its last nine tries against Princeton (11-3, 0-1). The Tigers entered the game ranked No. 76 in the Jeff Sagarin ratings with an RPI of 65, while the Quakers ranked No. 250 in the Sagarin ratings, with an RPI of just 312.
On paper, this should have been a rout in Princeton’s favor.
But in his first game back after missing four games with a concussion, sophomore center Darien Nelson-Henry contributed 17 points on 6-for-12 shooting from the field and senior forward Fran Dougherty added 17 points and 12 rebounds. Both converted consistently for a Penn offense that maintained an up-tempoadded hyphen pace from the very beginning.
“I looked at this game as the biggest game of the year coming into it,” Nelson-Henry said. “It’s to set the tone for the rest of the 13 games we have left, to start off with a win and show people that our nonconference record means nothing in Ivy League play.”
Princeton senior guard T.J. Bray led the Tigers with 19 points, but he acknowledged that Penn’s big men were what impressed him most Saturday night.
“Their big guys are pretty good,” Bray said.
Even after Jackson-Cartwright threw the ball away with under a minute left, Bray and senior forward Will Barrett each misfired at the other end. Sophomore guard Jamal Lewis emerged from a fracas in the paint with a crucial defensive rebound, and Princeton was forced to foul.
Lewis nailed his two free throws, but Barrett nailed a three-pointer to tie the game with 19.8 seconds remaining. Jackson-Cartwright then followed with his game-winning free throws. He scored just five points thatchanged from “on the” night, but his intangibles and clutch play transcended the stat sheet in Allen’s eyes.
“He took three shot, and he was probably the most important player on the floor for us,” Allen said. “Calming guys down, coaching guys. It says a lot that a senior captain can go out and take three shots and be that excited about winning. That says a lot.”
Penn jumped out to a 36-28 lead with 4:02 remaining in the first half and held a 43-38 lead at halftime, the third time in four games that the Quakers hit at least 40 points by halftime.
Though a 9-0 run bridging both halves gave the Quakers an 11-point lead just 2:45 into the second stanza, Penn slowly but steadily lost its lead from there, shooting just 4-for-14 from the field in the next 10:45 and committing five turnovers in that span. Penn turned the ball over 18 times on the night.
“I think it was Jim Tressel who said, ‘You coach the losses like you coach the wins,’” Allen said. “Our inability to not turn the ball over has hurt us.”
With 7:36 remaining, Princeton junior guard Ben Hazel converted an acrobatic reverse layup to give Princeton a 61-60 lead – its first lead since it led 6-5. Penn sophomore guard Tony Hicks was benched after picking up his fourth foul just 17 seconds later.
Yet Penn sophomore forward Julian Harrell responded by making two of three free throw attempts after getting fouled shooting a trey,added comma and Lewis nailed a trey of his own to create another cushion for the Quakers. Still, Princeton stormed back to tie it at 71-71 with a breakaway layup from Hazel with 2:14 to go.
It looked like Penn was set to blow another late-game advantage, but Princeton made just one field goal – Barrett’s three-pointer – in the final 2:14.
“This is our fresh start,” Dougherty said. “To kind of put our first 12 games and lock into this game next week and stick together and finish the way we did.”