PHILADELPHIA — Mitch Henderson is about as Princeton as a Princeton man can be. He was an excellent basketball player for the Tigers under the legendary Pete Carril and the almost-legendary Bill Carmody. He was co-captain of the 1998 team that went undefeated in the Ivy League en route to a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament and a 27-2 record. He even looks exactly the way a Princeton coach should look: perfectly tailored suit, white shirt, Princeton orange-and-black tie. He rarely lets anyone see him sweat.
Except there he was Saturday afternoon, in the midst of the cauldron that was the Palestra, turning to the Princeton fans and madly waving his arms — demanding all the noise they could muster with Penn and Princeton locked in a tie with less than five minutes to play.
Welcome to the Ivy League tournament.
It only took the league 60 years to get around to playing a postseason tournament, and — even in doing so — only the top four men’s and women’s teams made it to the Palestra for a semifinal quadruple-header Saturday and the finals Sunday.
“Best win I ever had,” Henderson said after his top-seeded team survived in overtime, 72-64, despite not leading for a second in regulation. “Penn was terrific. I told Coach [Steve] Donahue that. There was no way to prepare for this. I think it’s great for the players to have a chance to play in a tournament like this. I hope I would say that if we had lost.”
Princeton came in here with every reason to be upset that the eight Ivy League presidents decided this finally was the year to hold a tournament. Not only had the Tigers gone 14-0 — the program’s first undefeated league campaign since Henderson was a senior — and won the regular season title by four games, they had to play fourth-seeded Penn on the Quakers’ home court.
And even though Princeton had almost as many fans in the building as Penn did and the Ivy League covered all of Penn’s logos on the floor with its own, there was no getting around that the game was played in West Philadelphia in the cathedral of college basketball — an iconic part of the Penn campus.
“Actually, my major concern was getting my guys to understand that playoff basketball is just different,” Henderson said. “It’s far more physical. We took about 10 haymakers from them. Fortunately, this is a very tough group.”
Donahue, who came back to Penn two years ago to rebuild the Quakers from the deep dive they had been in, also used boxing analogies to describe the game. Asked how he felt with a 44-34 lead early in the second half, he said, “I knew we were going to have to take another punch.”
Haymakers? Punches? Coaches waving their arms as fans were losing their minds on just about every possession?
You bet, this is the Ivy League circa 2017. There is nothing genteel about it. All four men’s teams in Saturday’s semifinal doubleheader — Yale beat Harvard, 73-71, in the just-as-intense second game — played tough, fight-through-every-screen defense. Every rebound was fought for. Every pass was challenged.
The league is committed to playing a tournament for at least three years but is only locked in to the Palestra for this season. After Saturday, home-court advantage or not, there should be no doubt about where the tournament is held in all future years.
“Another great game in a wonderful building,” Yale Coach James Jones said. He smiled. “Glad to win one in here.”
The first basket in tournament history was scored by Ryan Betley, a baby-faced Penn freshman who played his high school ball 38 miles from here at Downingtown West. He finished with 18 points and 12 rebounds as Penn, which got here only by hitting a buzzer-beater to beat Harvard on March 4, made the game every bit as physical as Henderson had anticipated.
When senior Matt Howard hit a baby jumper in the lane that hit the rim at least three times to give Penn a 59-57 lead with 43 seconds left, then grabbed a rebound on Princeton’s ensuing possession and was fouled with 12 seconds left, it looked like a major upset might happen.
But Howard missed the front end of the one-and-one. The Tigers’ Amir Bell took the ball to the basket — and missed. Myles Stephens promptly grabbed the rebound and tied the game with five seconds left.
“I knew the ball might come off, and it came right into my hands, and I was able to put it in,” said Stephens, who finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds. “I was in the right place at the right time.”
Donahue, who was an assistant coach at Penn for 10 years before going on to lead Cornell to three Ivy League titles, thought that was a perfect description of the game: “One play,” he said. “That’s what the game ultimately came down to. And Stephens made that play.”
Stephens’s putback was eerily similar to Josh Hart’s game-winning rebound basket for Villanova in Friday’s Big East semifinal game against Seton Hall. “All our guys saw that,” Henderson said. “I told them before the game this might come down to a play like that. This game was almost exactly what I thought it would be.”
Once the game went into overtime, Princeton dominated, with Stephens scoring the first two baskets to start a 9-0 run that decided the outcome.
“Jeez, they didn’t lead in regulation?” Donahue said, clearly stunned when someone brought it up after the game. “That’s amazing.”
In truth, the day was amazing — everything the Ivy League could have hoped for.
“Took the Super Bowl 51 years to have an overtime game. Took us one,” Robin Harris, the league’s executive director, said with a Cheshire-cat grin.
For years, the Ivy League resisted calls to play a tournament if only because the eight school presidents are always trying to prove they’re different and above the fray of money-chasing big-time sports. But when Harvard and Yale played here two years ago in a one-game playoff for the league title, the old gym was almost full, the atmosphere was electric, and the game, won by Harvard, was superb.
Everyone took notice. What’s more, this is no longer a league that consists of Penn and Princeton and six other schools. Harvard, under Tommy Amaker, not only won or shared five straight titles, it upset a No. 3 seed and a No. 5 seed in back-to-back seasons in the NCAA tournament. A year ago, under James Jones, Yale won its first conference title since 1962, upset Baylor in the first round of the NCAAs and then put a scare into Duke.
“This is a very good basketball league,” Donahue said. “We’re a young team. Princeton is a young team. So are Harvard and Yale.”
In fact, going into the season’s final weekend, all eight teams had a mathematical chance to play here. Which is why conference tournaments make sense: They give every player hope.
“I’ll only get to play in this once,” Princeton senior Spencer Weisz said. “Going forward, though, this is going to be great thing for everyone who plays in this league.”
Princeton and Yale will meet in the final Sunday at high noon. The game will, no doubt, be a donnybrook. That sort of game is now an Ivy League tournament tradition.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.