#1 Princeton 72, #4 Penn 64 (OT): Stephens’ Putback Saves Tigers

The Princeton Offense is known for several things: Passing, cutting, shooting, spacing, you name it. One thing it is decidedly not known for is offensive rebounding. So it’s funny that the three biggest plays of the Tigers’ season have been second chances. The biggest of all came Saturday at The Palestra, where Myles Stephens picked up Amir Bell’s errant layup and dropped it through the net with six seconds left, sending the first men’s Ivy League Tournament game ever to overtime.

From there, Princeton finally looked like the team that went 14-0. The Tigers scored the first eight points of overtime, quieting the hometown Penn side of the crowd. By the skin of their teeth, the No. 1 seed advances to the Ivy League Tournament final, putting aside questions about the new playoff format (at least for now).

“I got asked the question [about playing at Penn’s gym] 100 times, and everyone wants me to say that I don’t like it here, and that’s not true,” Princeton coach Mitch Henderson said. “I’m really glad we’re playing on Championship Weekend, and I’m happy to beat Penn. […] I think it’s really good for the league, and I hope I would be saying the same thing if we lost.”

For about 39 minutes and 54 seconds, it looked like Princeton would be the first solo Ivy League champion to watch March Madness from home. Ryan Betley — a key addition to Penn’s starting lineup since losing to Princeton here a month ago — scored nine points in the first eight minutes to take an early lead. The Tigers couldn’t press their own advantages on the other end, committing an uncharacteristic seven first-half turnovers, and they were fortunate to be down only 33-30 at the break.

Three points quickly turned into 10, as Princeton missed a few three-pointers and then forced bad shots from a small lineup. (For the game, the Tigers made only five treys, their fewest since going 3-19 in an even uglier game against Penn two months ago.) A Betley put-back made the score 44-34 with 16 minutes left, forcing a timeout with Princeton on the ropes.

The Tigers earned their 1-seed with defense, and defense carried them back. (Princeton also trailed by 10 in the second half of its last Ivy playoff game, which also ended in exciting fashion.) Penn scored just 20 points over the final 21 minutes of gameplay, allowing Princeton to inch back even when its offense was sputtering. Small guards Darnell Foreman (4-12) and Devon Goodman (2-13) particularly felt the wrath of the Tigers’ long, swarming perimeter defense.

“With 15 minutes left in the game, we got way more aggressive,” Henderson said. “We were just getting pounded, haymaker after haymaker, and I think they just got fed up with it, which just turned the tide of the game. I thought it was a really physical game — it felt like a championship game.”

Princeton tied the game on an Amir Bell three-pointer with eight minutes left, but it never got over that hurdle — despite pulling even four more times down the stretch, the Tigers never led in regulation. (When told that after the game, Penn coach Steve Donahue said, “Jesus, is that true?”) Their outlook was bleakest with about three minutes left, when Stephens missed a bunny, giving the Quakers the ball with a four-point lead. Betley took an open three-pointer, but it rattled in and out — and Devin Cannady was fouled on the rebound (one of his career-high 10 boards), giving Princeton life.

Two more free throws pulled the Tigers even at 57. But with 43 seconds left, senior Matt Howard — who had a huge game one week earlier to send Penn to the postseason — threw up a floater that kicked high off the rim, settled back onto it, and finally dropped through the hoop.

It looked like that shot would go down as another historic Quaker moment at The Palestra, especially when Spencer Weisz and Steven Cook missed shots on the other end. But Howard missed the front half of a one-and-one with 12 seconds remaining, setting the stage for Stephens’ heroics — which were reminiscent of Princeton’s last-second offensive rebounds that turned into game-winning shots against Harvard.

“The play was for Amir to go to the rim,” he said. “Our gameplan was to get to the rim in the second half, and I knew the ball might come off — and it came off right into my hands, and I was able to put it back in. It was just right place, right time I guess.”

Princeton fans made The Palestra a less unfriendly venue.

It was fitting that Stephens and Bell partnered on the game’s biggest play, because they carried Princeton’s offense throughout. Stephens often went one-on-one with Howard, getting easy layups on the first two possessions of overtime to give the Tigers their first lead. The sophomore (and Defensive Player of the Year) finished with a game-high 21 points.

Bell scored 16 on only 10 shooting possessions, continuing his Penn-killing career. In five meetings over the last two years, the junior has averaged 14 ppg against the Quakers, with an offensive rating above 130 in all but one game. It’s not just rivalry motivation — Bell is usually matched up against a smaller guard like Darnell Foreman, whom he can bully to the rim.

The Tigers will face either Harvard or Yale in Sunday’s final, while Penn’s season is over. But the Quakers got a lot farther than seemed likely a month ago, when they were 0-6 in ivy league play—and with three freshmen in their starting lineup, the best is still ahead.

“They gave a great effort, and I thought we played incredible. I thought it was an even game, one that comes down to a loose ball putback by Myles,” Donahue said. “That’s not something they necessarily do well, but that’s what they had to do to win this game, and that’s the sign of a great team.”