From a designed play for an Ian Hummer dunk off the opening tip onwards, Princeton was in comprehensive control of Tuesday night's home opener against Northeastern, building a lead that would extend to as large as 18 points with 13 minutes remaining in the second half.
What followed was a baffling unraveling. Unable to consistently solve the Huskies' zone defense and standing still when they would have found better opportunities via cutting, the Tigers saw their opponent slowly and surely cut tiny pieces out of their advantage as time ticked down.
Still, the margin stood a bearable three possessions with three minutes left on a free throw by Princeton's Chris Clement.
It would be the Tigers' final point of the night.
A missed bunny layup, a turnover with the shot clock about to expire, a bad foul by Will Barrett leaving his feet and the advantage was but one.
Mack Darrow missed the front end of a one-and-one with 11 seconds to go and on a drive to his left by Zach Stahl that seemed to draw the entire Princeton backline of defense, Reggie Spencer was all alone on the other side of the basket for the game-winner.
A half court fling from T.J. Bray landed well short of its destination and Northeastern had improbably won the game after trailing for the previous 39:58.
"[Northeastern] did everything that they needed to do to come back and win that game and we didn't,” said Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson succinctly.
Hummer was un-defendable in the first half, scoring 21 points on 8-10 shooting. Hummer equaled his career high of 25 on the night but his touches were absent late against the Huskies' 3-2 zone.
Clay Wilson tossed in four three pointers, then went scoreless after intermission.
Quincy Ford had a career best 27 to lead the comeback including 5-6 from three point range and Spencer's 16 included the deciding bucket.
As a team Northeastern shot 57.5% on the night, 23-40 from the field.
Postgame audio can be found after the jump.
Postgame audio - Coach Mitch Henderson, Will Barrett & Ian Hummer:
Literally from jump, Princeton’s offense was so successful in the opening 20 minutes that the defensive issues that would appear down the stretch were not as readily apparent. One reason was that the Tigers were creating enough turnovers that the Huskies’ shooting percentage was somewhat deceptive.
As referenced above, a designed push by Brendan Connolly jumping center to Barrett in front of him dishing immediately to Hummer cruising in concert down the left flank for a left-handed dunk opened the scoring. Chris Clement slapped the ball away from Stahl and Hummer was fouled going up. Two free throws doubled the quick Tiger advantage.
Spencer’s scoop follow halved that lead but Will Barrett put Princeton in front 7-2 with a three from the right wing set up by Bray’s penetration.
Connolly overloading the zone found Hummer for a difficult finish, offset by Spencer going left off the glass over Connolly holding his ground and Spencer scoring to his right as bumped by Connolly for a three point play. The foul was Connolly’s second and took him off the floor with 15:37 to go.
Everything started to go Hummer’s way and the results were sensational. Hummer was fouled by Spencer trying to stop a two-handed baseline dunk and made both free throws. A slap by Darrow turned into a steal and Hummer was able to both control and score ahead.
Darrow out of the left block found Wilson on the right side for three and the Tigers were doubling NE 16-8.
Princeton was having serious offensive fun. Rapid fire passes from Wilson to Bray to a cutting Hummer moved the lead to double digits and the Tigers extended their advantage to 11 on Hummer’s stat-padding offensive putback of his own missed flip and a foul by Chris Avenant.
Coming out of a media time out, Henderson left Hummer, Barrett and Bray on the bench in lieu of a Wilson/Clement/Denton Koon/Hans Brase/Darrow lineup. Northeastern was able to get better results versus this five and +11 quickly dropped to +4 on a three pointer in transition by Joel Smith.
Things progressed back and forth for a spell with both teams scoring consistently. Bray wrapped a pass to Hummer inside. A soft trey by Ford over Darrow made it 23-20.
Darrow in the middle of the lane fed Hummer for a short jumper on the right side. Ford answered with a push.
Wilson deep outside the arc thought about a three, then actualized his vision. An entry to Darrow deflected to Hummer exploding up quick with the ball.
Wilson up top was again the ultimate zone buster and the long arms of Barrett caused Smith to take a driving fade that missed the mark. A posting Darrow went behind his body to Bray down the lane for a sweet feed and a 35-27 score.
Barrett was forced to the bench by his second personal, holding on an offensive rebound try. For the first time on the young season Henderson opted for a center-less lineup featuring Koon, Hummer, Wilson, Brase and Bray.
It was Koon who was the beneficiary of added room to roam inside. Smith traveled on his first move with the ball, then Koon went left with a jump step and finished with his left hand.
On defense Koon could not get out from behind a screen and David Walker connected for three. Wilson chucked in his fourth triple on the right side but a fifth was not in the cards, heat-check style.
Up 10 with the ball, Henderson yelled “chin!” from the bench and Koon was the recipient of a pass from Brase that met him at the basket.
Hummer faked a left elbow jumper with the shot clock down to three and passed inside on the mark to Koon going straight up to beat the buzzer. This would give Princeton the lead they would take into the locker room, 44-32.
The Tigers shot 17-29 in the opening frame (58.6%), 5-12 from three (41.7%) with Wilson 4-7. Hummer was the only Princeton player to get to the line where he was a perfect 5-5 (100.0%). 14 of those 17 baskets came off of assists.
Northeastern made 12-21 attempts (57.1%) including 4-5 both behind the arc (80.0%) and at the free throw line. 12 turnovers were the Huskies’ undoing. Ford led his team with nine, 2-2 from deep.
To start the second half, NE halved Princeton’s lead. A posting Spencer found Ford stepping in for his third three. A bad pass from Barrett resulted in Marco Banegas-Flores on the move for his only bucket of the game. Bray tried to slide under a driving Smith for a charge and Smith split a pair at the line.
Chris Clement began a Tiger push in the other direction with his first bucket of the season, a three from straight on. As Northeastern shifted into their 3-2 zone, Hummer became a spectator setting ball screens just above the free throw line. Clement was able to use one such screen to create his space.
While Princeton was able to pass over the Huskie zone in the first half and distribute out of the corner to teammates flashing overload, these connections were unavailable as the defense changed shape.
"In a zone like that you've got to penetrate and kick. That's what we were doing in the first half. We were getting wide open, easy shots and we were knocking them down,” was Barrett’s analysis. “When guys don't move around in the zone, we stayed a little stagnant and it allows [the opposition] to get a hand in your face."
Banegas-Flores shoved Clement high in the air as Clement guarded him tight and Clement shot backwards like he had a rope tied around him jerked firmly from off-court. Retaining possession, Barrett stepped to his right with the shot clock running down and converted a long deuce.
Spencer bowled over Hummer for an offensive foul and an inbounds play from Bray to Barrett smooth on the outside made it a game-best 52-38 edge.
A pushing Wilson off a rebound threw an outlet to Hummer. Could he get the angle around his man on the move? He could. Princeton by 16.
The Tigers threw some 1-3-1 extended defense at Northeastern and Ford missed outside, Walker down low. A penetrating Clement dished to Brase for his first collegiate bucket and with 13 minutes to go everyone not visiting from Boston was feeling good.
With a few hours’ retrospect, it is hard to pinpoint where things changed. Even as the Princeton lead slowly evaporated it felt like a result-righting possession was soon to follow. Avenant’s three over Barrett was not cause for much concern. Sure a Barrett three was short and Ford found Spencer on a drive and a dish but it was still 56-43. A great diagonal pass by Hummer to Brase was answered by Ford out of the corner for three.
The first raised eyebrow came with just under 10 minutes to go. Bray’s three popped out and Smith led a two-on-one to Ford the other way. Hummer lost the ball to the floor and Northeastern was able to get a time out before the tie-up.
Still, “every team makes a run” is what people say from time to time, don’t they? Ford drew the defense and Connolly fouled Spencer hard, leading to two free throws.
A slashing Hummer fed a cutting Darrow under the basket for a pair. It was Darrow’s first field goal of the year.
Spencer’s spinning jumper caught the back iron and dropped, offset by Hummer’s free throw length shot going down.
Here’s where Princeton began to leave points off the scoreboard. The pain is greater in retrospect. A cutting Darrow was rewarded by Hummer but couldn’t seal the deal at the rim. Barrett’s tip came up short and Ford was off the other way to make it 62-54.
There was no game-changing extended run, no sudden shift in momentum. It was like, as Tim Cahill once wrote – “being pecked to death by ducks.”
Hummer could not control the ball and a drive to his right by Stahl had Northeastern within six for the first time since 33-27.
Now Hummer drove the right baseline and attracted an extra defender, allowing Barrett to dunk with both hands. No one knew this would be the Tigers’ final field goal.
Bray found Darrow cutting but Darrow rushed his shot and sailed the ball completely over the rim. Another missed chance at an easy bucket in an ever-tightening game.
With the score 64-58 and less than four minutes to go, Barrett raced down the far baseline with the ball and was fouled by Spencer as he tried to muscle the ball low and then up to the rim. Barrett was 9-10 at the line in the first game of the season but split this pair of chances.
Hummer reached on Ford, who made one of two.
Clement, who shared the backcourt with Wilson as Bray sat on the bench for an extended portion late, tried to go around Ford and drew a foul, but he also would make the first and miss the second long.
Hummer tried to draw a charge on Spencer but did not get the whistle. Barrett was called for his fourth personal on a subsequent Spencer scoop as Hummer lay on the ground and Spencer missed his first free throw then made his second.
It still felt like Princeton was one conversion away from swiping back the momentum. Darrow from the far wing had a clean chance from three with Bray grabbing the weakside rebound. He fed Hummer on the opposite block who left a sure layin short. The ball came to the floor and remained with Princeton. It was Bray off target once more on the right side to put possession back to the Huskies.
When Ford pushed off Barrett to create some space and saw his three point try delicately bounce thrice off the rim before falling it suddenly felt quite uncomfortable in Jadwin Gym.
Hummer lost the ball in the center of the paint with one on the shot clock and at the other end Ford faked Barrett in the air, then leaned in for a whistle that disqualified Barrett.
Ford made both free throws for a 66-65 score with :54.6 showing.
While they had struggled versus the Northeastern zone, it looked like the following Princeton possession was involving decent distribution until Henderson called time with the ball leaving Clement’s hands on the wing. Of course Clement’s next pass came to Darrow after the whistle tossing in a meaningless shot from three point range.
"We've got to make them when they matter,” Henderson said.
Bringing Brase in from the bench at this juncture was nearly a masterstroke. Wilson was off on a deep three but the freshman kept the possession alive with a difficult offensive rebound, passing to Hummer as Henderson again called time.
In similar circumstances the prior two seasons Mack Darrow had gone to the line and iced games. Bray passed from the sideline to Darrow up top, who was fouled by Ford with :11.2 to go. Darrow was Princeton’s top returning free throw shooter but on this evening his first try sailed long and Spencer rebounded.
Moving the ball over half court and calling time, Stahl and Spencer were able to combine for the game-winner that stunned a Princeton team who had led the race for every step except the final one.
Henderson was frank about what went wrong. "We stopped moving and we got careless with the ball,” he said. “Offensively we just became stagnant and then we couldn't stop them - we lost sight of our rules. Guys who were supposed to be switching weren't and there was miscommunication on offense.”
His last word on the subject came with the upperclassmen Hummer and Barrett sitting to his side. “We have a veteran group - we start two seniors and three juniors - usually when we do that here we've been a very good defensive team,” he stated.
"We had about five or six chances and it wouldn't have been a game - missed a couple free throws, a couple of assignments missed on defense."
Princeton let these opportunities on both sides of the ball slip away on Tuesday and what once didn’t seem like much of a game ended up being one the Tigers somehow lost.
-The Tigers shot 26-55 for the night (47.3%), 7-23 from three (30.4%) and 7-10 at the line (70.0%). The percentages in these categories dipped to 34.6%, 18.2% and 40.0% in the second half.
-Northeastern never cooled. The Huskies were 23-40 overall (57.5%), a crazy 8-11 from three (72.7%) and 13-17 on free throws (76.5%).
-Bray, Princeton’s leading returning shooter from behind the arc, has opened the season 0-11 from three point range.
-Hummer had six offensive rebounds and Barrett four. Oddly, neither had a defensive board on the night.
-Both Daniel Edwards and Edo Lawrence were present on the bench but not in uniform.
-Jimmy Sherburne was in attendance, rooting his team on from the stands.
-Northeastern (2-0) has won both of their games this season by a single point on a basket with less than three seconds remaining.