The Princeton University men’s basketball team hasn’t had the smoothest of finishes to its regular season.
But as the Tigers head to Yale in New Haven, Conn. for the Ivy League Tournament this weekend, none of that matters. All that matters for Princeton is winning two games and heading to the NCAA tournament.
“This is what we have been waiting for,” Princeton coach Mitch Henderson said after the Tigers concluded their regular season with an 81-59 loss to Yale last Saturday. “There is a big picture we have of Myles (Stephens) with an NCAA tournament sticker on. Let’s put these guys back in the tournament. All you need to do is play 80 minutes well.
“We have to play better and we will. We’re going to work really hard to get better.”
Princeton limped to the finish line to end the regular season, losing its final three games to end 16-11 overall and 8-6 in the Ivy League.
The third-seeded Tigers will face second-seeded Yale in the Ivy League semifinals at 3 p.m. on Saturday. Top-seeded Harvard will take on fourth-seeded Penn in the other semifinal. The championship game will be played Sunday at noon at Yale.
Princeton lost leading scorer Devon Cannady when he was dismissed from the team late in the season. He wound up playing just 16 games this year. Freshman Jaelin Llewellyn and sophomore Ryan Schwieger have battled injuries this year and hope to have both available this weekend. Llewellyn has been in the lineup but Schwieger missed last weekend with a concussion and the Tigers hope to have him back.
“This group has had to do more than any other group I’ve ever have had in terms of off the court stuff to deal with,” Henderson said. “That’s a lot to put on anybody, including not being here with one of their teammates that they started the season with. That’s a testament to the leadership of the team and keeping things together when things are going all over the place.
“For us to be going to the tournament, we are disappointed in a way but I see this as a sign of seniors keeping us on path and focused in the right direction. That’s something I am proud of them for that.”
Stephens has been the backbone of the team and was honored along with Noah Bramlage and Elias Berbari last Saturday for Senior Night. He finished the regular season averaging 13.6 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.
“It was a little emotional before the game,” Stephens said. “Four years here is a long time. You spend so much time coming down here every day lifting and conditioning and practicing. So it is definitely emotional. But we’re also very excited because we get another shot at it this weekend so it isn’t over yet.”
Stephens is hoping the Tigers can overcome a rough finish and play their best basketball this weekend.
“It was a tough time when we went through that,” Stephens said. “As seniors we kind of dealt with a lot. I think we dealt with things the right way and we kept our team together. We have a season to finish and we have goals we still want to accomplish. We’re not done yet as seniors and we’re going to attack this week with the same mentality we have all year.”
For Henderson, the hope is that Schwieger is ready to play and his team has two solid performances left in it.
“What I know about these things is they run their own course,” he said of Schwieger’s injury. “We’re trying to do everything we’re supposed to do to get Ryan ready. We get one more day to prepare. We have an opportunity to get healthy. This feels so good right now because it is a second chance.
“We’d like to be doing what (Yale) is doing right now (celebrating a co-Ivy title) in our building. We get a chance to go up there and maybe even play them.”