NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Princeton Coach Sydney Johnson called the inbounds play “the perfect pass, the perfect execution.”
“I was ready to shake hands either way,” he said. “That’s exactly what we wanted. You’ve got to be able to live with that.”
Princeton is more than happy to live with the result of Douglas Davis’s 12-foot jump shot in the final second, which lifted the Tigers to a 63-62 win over Harvard on Saturday and sent them to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2004.
Harvard (23-6) appeared to be on its way to its first NCAA tournament since 1946 when Brandyn Curry made a layup to put the Crimson in front, 62-61, with 11 seconds remaining. When Kyle Casey blocked Davis’s first shot attempt with four seconds left, the Harvard faithful were certain they were going dancing.
Princeton (25-6) got the ball under its basket with 2.8 seconds left. Dan Mavraides threw the inbounds pass to Davis, who caught the ball, dribbled free of a defender and put up a fade-away jumper.
The buzzer sounded while the ball was still in the air, and everyone at Payne Whitney Gymnasium held its collective breath until it slipped through the net. As the Princeton fans stormed the court, the referees looked at the replay, which showed the ball left Davis’s hands with two-tenths of a second remaining.
“It felt good, it went in and I fell to the ground,” Davis said. “That was the worst decision I’ve ever made because everybody just jumped on me.”
Harvard got caught on a switch on the play. Christian Webster (Landon) left Davis, and Oliver McNally picked him up.
“I was late getting there,” McNally said. “I was undisciplined. I jumped when I shouldn’t have. He made a tough shot, but a good shot.”
Said Harvard Coach Tommy Amaker, “It was a dagger.”
From the outset, it was a taut game between two well-matched teams. Harvard, the nation’s oldest university, has produced 10 U.S. presidents, 14 Supreme Court justices and even an astronaut, but no Ivy League men’s basketball titles until this season. The Crimson had waited longer than any other Division I team to win its conference title. Now Harvard wanted to go to the NCAA tournament. The Crimson’s only trip came in 1946, nine years before the Ivy League was formed.
Harvard and Princeton finished tied atop the league standings, and the Ivy League is the only league without a conference tournament. So the teams went to a one-game, winner-take-all playoff.
This was the eighth time the Ivy League needed a playoff to decide its NCAA tournament representative in its 55-year history. The last time the Ivy League held a playoff was in 2002, when three teams — Yale, Princeton and Penn — tied for first place. That year, Penn represented the league.
Princeton is accustomed to being the league’s lead horse. The Tigers have won 26 Ivy League titles and gone to 24 NCAA tournaments. But it had been seven years without an appearance. Georgetown Coach John Thompson III, whom Johnson worked for as an assistant with the Hoyas, was the last to lead them to an Ivy League title.
“I love this program,” said Johnson, a 1997 Princeton graduate who won two Ivy League titles as a player and became the Tigers’ coach in 2007. “To be able to be alongside these young men, it just means everything because that’s our standards. . . . There’s an expectation. There’s a different responsibility. They’ve been carrying much of the weight.”
For Amaker, a Fairfax native, the loss does not diminish the most wins (23) and most league victories (12) in program history. But to come so close, and come away empty, left he and the players feeling disconsolate.
“We are certainly,” he said, “heartbroken and devastated.”