Back in December during a conversation about the decision to insert freshman forward Hans Brase in the starting lineup, replacing a team captain in the process, Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson said something prescient.
“Brendan Connolly is still going to win a game or two for us in the Ivy League.”
On a Saturday night in February with the Tigers’ defense getting knifed apart by the repeated dribble penetration of Columbia’s guards, Connolly was the second half difference-maker at both ends of the floor.
Knotted at 52 with 8:51 remaining, the difference wasn't fellow senior Ian Hummer's 12-14 free throw shooting or T.J. Bray's game-high 17 points and 3-3 marksmanship from downtown including a big jumper with the shot clock expiring.
The difference was a player who saw the floor only in the final 55 seconds of the previous evening's well-decided contest.
The difference was Brendan Connolly.
The senior center replaced the freshman Brase and with a burst of unexpected speed went around Cory Osetkowski for a reverse layup. Connolly also helped sure up the defense inside in a way Brase was unable, altering at least two drives and providing an immovable object for the Lions to try and knife past.
With the lead at three after a Mark Cisco left baseline jumper, Connolly glided to his right and tossed in a gorgeous hook shot on the run over Cisco from the center of the lane which provided needed distance in the final two minutes.
“When given the opportunity, he came through for us big tonight,” Henderson said of Connolly’s critical contributions. “I thought he did a really nice job changing the tone.”
The Tigers would make four of five free throws to keep Columbia at bay.
Princeton shot over 50% from the floor for the second straight night (23-45) and went 8-11 from three point range after starting an incredible 7-7. Also of importance: The Tigers attempted more than 20 free throws for the third consecutive contest.
Freshman Maodo Lo had some of the finest slashes for Columbia and he led his team with 16 points, Cisco adding 11.
The rest of this recap plus postgame audio from Coach Mitch Henderson, Brendan Connolly & T.J. Bray can be found after the jump.
Postgame audio - Coach Mitch Henderson, Brendan Connolly & T.J. Bray:
Taking to acquaintances before the matchup, I saw just two ways this game could go with Columbia coming off a last minute Friday night loss at Penn which really hampered their hopes of being a contender in the conference.
1. The Lions would come out from the opening tip flying all over the floor, playing with a reckless desperation fully aware of the circumstances.
2. Princeton would open up an early lead by the first media time out and Columbia would see their forthcoming fate and accept the inevitable.
What transpired in the opening 20 minutes was closer to the second scenario but without the allowance of defeat as a reality.
Converting their first six attempts from behind the arc and opening up a 14 point first half lead, it appeared that Princeton would be well on their way to their third straight Ivy League victory with minimal discomfort.
A more aggressive Columbia team with their backs to the proverbial wall, staring down likely elimination in the chase for the conference crown, began to isolate and dribble penetrate, turning the corner on many a Tiger as they eventually caught Princeton right before halftime and inched in front by one late. While a Denton Koon offensive put-back made it 37-36 Tigers at the intermission these issues did not resolve themselves in the second stanza.
Unexpectedly, Columbia's run came primarily with leading scorer and key distributor Brian Barbour on the bench. Barbour was only responsible for six of his team's points, eight below his season average with a lone assist.
“Maybe [we were] a little too focused on [Barbour] and not enough focus on some of the other guys,” commented Henderson.
In the final 20 minutes it was drive after drive after drive for the Lions, entering the lane and scoring or dishing.
Princeton was able to keep Columbia from taking the lead back on multiple occasions, though the visitors from New York City did pull even three different times.
Backing up to the game’s nascent moments, Brase drove to his left on Cisco for the night’s opening basket. Brase also got his hand in as Cisco went up for a shot and back the other way Hummer found Bray cutting to the basket for a layup and a foul by Cisco. A free throw made it 5-0 less than 50 seconds in.
Lo in the lane got two back for Columbia and Barbour added a jumper following a poor Hummer fade over Alex Rosenberg. It was Rosenberg who drew the assignment of containing Hummer initially.
Denton Koon by Barbour soared to his left for an easy basket. Will Barrett also penetrated the Lion defense, this time going right for a 9-4 count.
Lo by Barrett unable to block the drive from behind and Barbour slashing got Columbia back within a point before one of the more impressive group shooting demonstrations you’re going to witness.
It began with Hummer in the lane checked by John Daniels finding Barrett on the left wing for a three. Brase came around Cisco from the back and stole a post feed at one end, Bray stepping into deep three from the top of the arc at the other.
Lo on the left baseline launched long and out of a media time out Bray skipped a pass to Barrett from the wing with three on the shot clock. Three baskets. Nine points. A lead of 18-8.
Columbia began to score again but each time down the value of their baskets were exceeded by Tiger treys. Hummer and Cisco batting for the rebound of a Lo attempt slapped the ball back in off the glass. Hummer from the right block found Mack Darrow from distance.
After a Cisco basket Clay Wilson had a shot blocked under the rim but controlled the rebound and found Bray with time dwindling for Princeton’s fifth straight triple. The lead was up to 12.
“You just shut up when you’re a coach and let them do their thing,” said Henderson of this incredible long distance display.
Following a split at the line by Rosenberg, Hummer to Darrow on the right side equaled six-for-six marksmanship and a 27-13 count on the scoreboard with 9:28 showing.
Henderson shouldered some of the blame for how Princeton played with this lead. “I fooled around with a lineup a little bit and maybe I shouldn’t have,” he admitted.
One change I noticed was that Princeton starters’ aggressive (and successful) hedging up to the ball handler using a screen kept Columbia uneasy. Especially with Barrett, Wilson, Connolly, Bray and Brase on the floor there was less success on defense.
There was also bad fortune (Koon saving a loose ball on the sideline right to Rosenberg) and a mixture of bad luck and bad effort (Rosenberg clobbered Wilson inside, then Cisco split a pair at the line once the ball came right to him Darrow fouled on an offensive rebound).
Connolly’s decoy hook shot pass to Koon was out of the latter’s reach and Osetkowski drop-stepped Brase for a pair. Saturday was the first time in a while where Brase played like the freshman he is. For example, countering with a wild drive to his right from a bad angle versus Osetkowski off the glass that did not stand a chance, then committing a silly over the back foul on the rebound.
Osetkowski found a cutting Rosenberg who scored as he drew contact off of Wilson’s face for an insult-to-injury three point play.
Isaac Cohen with unexpected ease into the lane from the right arc following a Barrett charge on a drive made it 27-21 and caused Henderson to use a time out as Hummer and Darrow returned to the floor.
Bray recognized a mismatch with Steve Frankoski, posted on the left side, called for the ball and went right as he squared and scored while the whistle sounded for a much-needed three point play at the 5:43 mark.
Osetkowski (blocked inside then scoring his second chance) and Hummer (going left off the glass for his first field goal of the contest) traded buckets prior to Frankoski hitting from the far wing after a Rosenberg offensive rebound.
Bray’s drive to the right drew contract but did not also draw a whistle. Columbia soloed the larger Osetkowski versus Darrow and the result was a foul and two made free throws.
“They found a way that worked for them,” Henderson said of the Lions’ change once down 14. “They were insolating us on drives and I thought was an effective way for them to play. We were making adjustments all the way up until the last minute of the game.”
Barbour was a spectator for the majority of this run. He came out at the 9:01 mark with his team -13 and returned at 3:31 to find the Lions trailing by four.
Hummer forced the issue a tad and came up short off the glass. Canadian crippler Grant Mullins connected over Hummer’s reach on a defensive rotation and an 18-5 run had Columbia down one.
Brase’s three from the top made it a perfect 7-7 from downtown for the Tigers in the first half. Entering the final two minutes of the frame Rosenberg pivoted and finished over Koon after Koon had a squared shot of his own pop in and out. A push by Bray in the lane landed short and following a near steal Lo was pure on the left side. Columbia had come all the way back and then some, taking a 36-35 advantage.
The Lions lone lead (which in retrospect given how the game felt seems impossible) lasted 26 seconds. Bray snaking to the basket had his shot pop out but Koon was there underneath to clean up and score.
Looking for the final shot of the half Barbour could not get much space and his fling from behind the arc at the buzzer was clipped in mid-flight by Koon.
The Lions did not wilt when anticipated and despite a one point Princeton lead it felt like the half was a victory for Columbia given how it began.
Princeton shot 14-24 as a team (58.3%), was 7-7 from deep and 2-2 at the line yet only led by one. Bray’s 12 was a high for either side. All the perimeter marksmanship provided Hummer with five assists.
Columbia came in to port at 14-29 (48.3%) with 3-5 targeting outside (60.0%) and 5-7 on free throws (71.4%). Lo had seven off the bench, Rosenberg six. The Lions committed just a pair of turnovers and grabbed six offensive boards.
The Tigers scored 1.31 points/possession, Columbia at 1.28.
To start the second half Columbia had the ball. With Barrett guarding Barbour, Bray got his foot on an entry pass (or did the entry pass get on his foot?) and the impact came at such an angle the ball flew high enough in the air it nearly cleared the temporary partitions dividing the Backcourt Bistro from the visiting locker room. Possession stayed with the Lions once the ball was retrieved and Lo spinning on Koon inside got fouled, making one of two for a tie score.
Hummer on the left baseline stopped before reaching the waiting Cisco but could not finish. Hummer still grabbed his own miss and was fouled by a reaching Barbour going up. Hummer converted both his attempts. In the process Hummer tied Brian Earl for sixth in scoring all-time at Princeton.
Lo’s shot for the lead went in and then out, with Cisco whistled for an odd foul on the rebound.
Barrett got into the lane and slipped a pass to Koon going up on the left side who left his try short of the rim.
Brase lost the ball to Cisco and Lo tied the score at 39-39 over Hummer’s attempt to close.
Bray drove to his right and shot the ball clear over the iron. It worked out nicely as Koon from the opposite block tipped the miss in with one hand.
Hummer knocked down Barbour inside but could not finish, Brase fouled by Rosenberg going back up and making both tries for a four point Princeton lead.
Every time it seemed like the haymaker might land on Columbia’s fragile jaw, they performed admirably. By Henderson’s admission the Lions were more tenacious than his team this time out.
Rolling to his left Cisco took a Barbour pass and sized a jumper. Barrett from the left elbow could not equal.
The streak couldn’t have lasted all night and Barrett was the first to blink from behind the arc, short on an attempt after receiving a Hummer feed. Barrett didn’t slump his shoulders and turn his back to the play. Instead as Hummer grabbed a second chance Barrett cut into the lane, took a feed in stride and was fouled hard by Lo, making one of two at the line.
It seemed like the game might be slipping a bit from Columbia as Hummer slapped a Barbour attempt loudly, grabbed the ball with two hands and slung an outlet pass to Koon for a right hand throw down. Columbia called time trailing 46-41.
The Lions next five baskets? All layups, Cohen driving on Brase and spinning right for starters.
After Daniels galloped to his right and bowled over Brase in position, he found the whistle favorable and went to the line where he missed both his chances.
A whistle did not come with Hummer knocked over Rosenberg and banked an awkward shot in off the glass to make it 48-43 and slide the senior forward past his assistant coach Earl on the scoring chart. It wasn’t pretty but it was effective.
Osetkowski got Darrow in the air inside and was fouled by Barrett on a reach, splitting his attempts.
Koon through his legs and then through the lane made it a six point game and again it felt like Columbia might be on the ropes.
Drive. Drive. Drive. Drive.
Lo’s scoop by Koon drew down two. After Darrow passed a three he should have shot and threw the ball away on a drive, Lo eventually pushed off Barrett to get free to his left and scored as Connolly could not block the shot at the rim.
Picking up his fourth personal at the 11:00 mark handchecking Bray, Lo stayed in the game.
Connolly could not effectively tip in a Koon miss on the weakside and Lo crossed Connolly on his drive to the basket. The contest was even at 50.
Grasping for answers, Henderson went to Chris Clement off the bench for the first time. While rightfully much will be made about Connolly’s contributions to the victory, Clement’s defense was necessary and stout. However, the lineup made it appear the Tigers only had three players on the floor who might try and shoot the basketball.
Bray inbounding under his own basket found Hummer cutting who made both of his attempts after being fouled going up. A lovely attack by Cohen to his left off the glass evened the score once more.
I think Connolly caught Osetkowski flat-footed with a surprise spin away and around for a reverse layup with 8:24 showing. Princeton had a lead they would not relinquish.
The Tigers were fortunate that a curling Mullins could not connect from outside after gathering and having enough time to set his feet.
Hummer was cut off by Rosenberg but drew contact and a shooting foul a good 16’ from the basket. Hummer missed his first free throw of the night long but converted the second.
Mullins drove and drew the defense, leaving the ball for a flatfooted and appreciative Cisco.
Bray scored over the smaller Lo for a 57-55 count.
Again fortune struck as a Mullins drive allowed a three from the far corner by Frankoski which sailed long as Connolly closed out.
Tension continued to rise. Hummer left alone on the left arc had no choice but to try and connect, his shot off-target.
Koon went through his legs again starting on the arc with a right drive he pushed up into the air and home. Leading 59-54 Koon was frustrated to see Frankoski rise up from a crouch on the perimeter and launch a true three over Koon’s reach.
Hummer went right past Daniels and was fouled, converting two. Back came Rosenberg after slaps out of bounds from Connolly and Bray to drive past Barrett for a pair.
With the lead two, the clock under three minutes and the possession about to run out, Hummer in the lane passed out to Bray with little time to spare. Bray used a quick ball fake to get Cohen airborne and had enough poise to square and fire a three as the horn sounded. The shot sailed home and Princeton led 64-59. The Tigers had their first trey off the second half.
“They doubled down on Ian a little too hard with the clock ending. Ian made a great kick out to me,” described Bray. “I saw the guy coming so I pump-faked and let it fly. Luckily it went in.”
The game was far from over. Cohen driving to his left found Cisco on the left baseline for a line drive jumper that looked destined to fail but got over the rim for two.
When the ball went in to Connolly at the other end the oft-maligned and fairly-forgotten former starting center did not hesitate with his beautiful sky hook that was nothing but net.
It was an immensely satisfying shot to witness by a soft-spoken player who made the most of a chance that he could not have been sure would come again.
“When given the opportunity, he came through for us big tonight,” agreed Henderson. “I thought [Brendan] did a really nice job changing the tone.”
Frankoski’s drive did not drop and Cisco was called for a foul crashing into Hummer as he tipped the ball home from behind him. After some discussion the officials ruled the shot counted (which did not make any sense given who the foul was on) then discussed a second time and overturned their change of heart. The end result was two more free throws for Hummer making it a three possession game.
That should have been it. That wasn’t it. Cohen was fouled by a reaching Koon and made one of two free throws. Darrow trapped on the inbounds by Barbour and Daniels was called for a travel. With the ball right back Koon bumped Barbour on his way through the lane, not wise when dealing with an 89%+ free throw shooter. Of course both chances were good and the lead was down to four.
Princeton’s next possession ended with Darrow from the top of the arc short for three as the Lions opted to play defense instead of fouling. A lengthy Columbia possession saw Barbour from the left arc come up short with under 15 seconds to go as Barrett rebounded.
Barrett made one of two at the line, Frankoski converted a righty push and the game still wasn’t decided with :09.6 showing.
Time was when Hummer at the line in the closing seconds might have been cause for concern. Hummer came to the ball, took Bray’s inbounds and welcomed a foul by Rosenberg with the lead just three.
Hummer had a few free throws earlier that used all of the rim before dropping. Neither of these needed such assistance. Princeton was up 71-66.
Lo could not hit from outside and Hummer was needlessly fouled by Cisco with :01.2 left, adding a superfluous point that moved him within one tally of Craig Robinson for fifth as a Tiger while most in attendance put on their coats, clogged the aisles and obstructed my my view.
“I thought at times they were tougher than us but I really felt down the stretch we made the right plays,” summarized Henderson.
The description was apt. While the Lions were the aggressors for much of the night, an incredible early shooting display and the late contributions from Clement and Connolly helped propel Princeton to a 3-0 mark in the Ivy League.
“I’m just looking for the opportunities I’m given,” Connolly said quietly afterwards. “I’ll take what I can get with those.”
In other games this season teammates have helped pick up Connolly when his performance was lagging. On Saturday Connolly got the chance to return the favor and ultimately Connolly made all the difference, proving his coach prophetic in the process.
-Princeton hit 23-45 field goals (51.1%) and were >50% for the weekend. The Tigers made 8-11 threes (72.7%) and 18-22 free throws (81.8%).
-By Comparison Columbia was 26-56 as a team (46.4%), 4-13 from deep (30.8%) and an uncharacteristic 10-17 at the line (58.8%). Coming into the game the Lions were making 75.7% of their free throws, seventh-best in the country.
-Columbia had just three turnovers and only one second half giveaway.
-Hummer is up to 1,440 points for his career. His 12 made free throws were the most by a Princeton player in a regulation game since Judson Wallace’s 13-13 against Monmouth in 2004.
-The Tigers were +14 with Hummer on the floor while Columbia was -18 with Barbour in the lineup.
-In addition to his 16 points Hummer added seven rebounds and seven assists without a turnover.
-It was Princeton’s 20th straight home win over Columbia. There are members of the Tiger roster who were not born the last time the Lions won at Jadwin Gym.
-The Tigers and Harvard are both undefeated in the Ivy League. The other six squads each have at least two losses.