Men's Basketball: Davis’ legacy reaches beyond ‘The Shot’
“It was definitely a new challenge,” he said. “I started talking, and then someone yelled out, ‘You’re a sexy beast!’ I’ll never forget that. I was like, ‘What?!’ And it threw everything off and I couldn’t get it back.”
While the senior guard may have had trouble coming up with the right words then, he has never had trouble coming up with the right shots in front of a Princeton crowd. Last week, Davis became the second-leading scorer in men’s basketball history behind Bill Bradley ’65, scoring his 1,550th point in an 82-61 loss to Pittsburgh in the College Basketball Invitational quarterfinals. Davis, who scored a game-high 20 points against the Panthers, capped off one of the most celebrated careers in Princeton basketball as an integral part of rebuilding a proud program back to its present heights.
When Davis arrived in the Orange Bubble, the Tigers were coming off of the worst season in Princeton basketball history, going 6-23 overall and 3-11 in the Ivy League in the debut season of former head coach Sydney Johnson ’97. Despite the Tigers’ struggles that season, Davis committed to the Tigers after a successful career at the nearby Hun School of Princeton.
“[The coaching staff] put a lot of faith and trust in us and our abilities — that we could be a major part of turning this team and this program around,” Davis said. “We bit ... I mean, I bit. Coach Johnson put it, in a way, ‘We’re already here; there’s nowhere to go but up.’ ”
Davis certainly took that attitude to heart in his first game in the Princeton uniform. Starting as a freshman with classmate and forward Patrick Saunders, he went off for 25 points in a 55-53 loss to Central Michigan in Jadwin Gymnasium, the most by any player in his freshman debut as a Tiger.
“I give a lot of credit to Sydney Johnson for putting faith in me as a freshman to come in and start,” Davis said. “Normally I’m pretty nervous before a game, but especially that one — my first collegiate game. But after the first shot went up and I think I made it, my first shot after that I was fine.”
In fact, Davis had missed his first shot — a three-pointer — but that did not stop him. Even with his early success, that first season at Princeton was a struggle for Davis. Ten games into the season, the Tigers were 2-8, and Davis took some time adjusting to life at Princeton.
“I won’t forget my freshman year because my freshman year was tough,” Davis said. “Princeton takes some getting used to and adjusting to. My family was really supportive, and they came up. My brother came up whenever he could to visit me. I’ll never forget that.”
Things started looking up as the season wore on, and the Tigers went on a seven-game winning streak in January, finishing the season 13-14 and 8-6 in the Ivy League, good enough to tie for second in the standings. Princeton defeated Cornell, the eventual Ivy League champion and NCAA Tournament representative 61-41, showing Davis the full extent of Jadwin’s atmosphere for the first time.
“We always said we had to win in order to get people to the stands,” Davis said. “I remember my first game out against Central Michigan. We walked out there, and there was literally nobody. I was like, ‘Wow. This has to change.’ It only took us winning.”
Over the course of his career, with the loud and raucous crowds that visiting teams face when they come to Princeton — especially rivals like Penn and Harvard — Davis has definitely seen an evolution of his home court back into the “Jadwin Jungle.”
“When I think about Jadwin, I think about the game we won our freshman year against Cornell because that was the first time I had the chance to see Jadwin as the ‘jungle,’ ” Davis said. “That was like, ‘Wow. This place is really rocking.’ Then our sophomore year, we played Cornell again, and it seemed like it was even more packed.”
Fast-forward to March 12, 2011, when the Tigers faced an unusual scenario. While the rest of college basketball was in the midst of conference tournaments, the Ivy League was still undecided. Harvard and Princeton, who had split the regular season series and finished the league with identical 12-2 records, would play a one-game playoff at Yale to determine the Ancient Eight representative to the NCAA Tournament.
“Before the game, I was thinking, ‘This is going to be tough,’ ” Davis said. “I remember talking to Isaac Serwanga [a senior wide receiver on the football team], who told me, ‘This is going to come down to the last shot. You guys are both really good.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, man, you’re right.’ He said, ‘You just gotta win it.’ I remember going into the game with that same mindset. And we did.”
In perhaps the most famous shot in Princeton basketball history, Davis received an inbounds pass from Dan Mavraides ’11 with 2.8 seconds left, beating the buzzer with a jump shot that gave the Tigers a 63-62 victory and their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2004.
But for Davis, the story begins a bit earlier, after the Crimson went up 62-61 on the second-to-last possession of the game. Davis drove the length of the floor, but took on contact and had his shot blocked out of bounds with 2.8 seconds left.
“Dan didn’t hesitate and threw me the ball [on the inbounds],” Davis said. “I caught it and tried to get away from [Harvard guard] Oliver McNally as fast as I could. I threw a pump fake, and he bit on it. I knew I had to get a shot up quick, and I shot it and it fell.”
“I was counting in my head; there were basically three seconds. If I get it off a little bit before three, I’m fine. I did, and my counting was pretty good.”
The ball went through the net, and Princeton was thrust into the national spotlight. Davis’ shot was SportsCenter’s top play of conference tournament weekend, from the only league in the country without a conference tournament.
“I got a lot of phone calls, to say that much,” Davis said. “A lot of phone calls, Twitter. I think I was trending on Twitter, which was ridiculous.”
Five days later, the Tigers faced off against a true blue-blood program. Princeton, seeded No. 13, took on No. 4-seed Kentucky in the Round of 64 in Tampa, Fla. While most of the country did not expect Princeton to present a serious challenge to the Wildcats, the Tigers took a Final Four-bound team to the brink behind Davis’ 13 points. Princeton lost 59-57, after Wildcats guard and eventual NBA lottery pick Brandon Knight banked in a tough layup with two seconds left.
“I wasn’t too nervous, but on that big stage, it’s ridiculous because you have everyone watching you, you have all the cameras,” Davis said. “You can’t go anywhere without a camera following you.”
This past season has been quite the change for Davis and the basketball team. Johnson resigned as Princeton coach in spring 2011, and current head coach Mitch Henderson ’98 came in to take the reins for the Tigers. But Princeton adjusted, with leadership from the seniors, and the Tigers were playing their best at the end of the season.
In Davis’ last home game, Princeton defeated Penn 62-52 on senior night in Jadwin, denying the Quakers a share of the Ivy League title and a playoff with Harvard for a ticket to the tournament.
“When you’re in that situation, you want to go out with a win,” Davis said. “You don’t want to go out on senior night with a loss. I know we’ve done it to some teams, where we’ve beat them on senior night, and it must suck, but I didn’t want to be in that situation.”
The seniors certainly finished this season strong, taking Princeton to the CBI quarterfinals after Davis scored a career-high 31 points to beat Evansville in the first round. And the senior believes the Tigers’ future is bright.
“I think that you’re going to see Princeton basketball in the next couple of years, as long as Coach Henderson keeps doing what he’s doing,” Davis said. “We’re going to see Princeton basketball run at its best. We’ll continue to have success with some bigger teams, and I think we’re going to sneak up and bite some teams in the butt.”
As for Davis himself, he intends to continue his basketball career professionally.
“I plan on playing wherever it may be,” Davis said. “It’s a process that I have to start the ball rolling. When I’m dealing with what I’m doing after graduation, I want to be fully focused on that, not really worrying about something else like a thesis. I just want to knock some things out and focus on what’s next, like getting an agent, things like that.”
With several former teammates paving their way in Europe, including Mavraides in Greece and Kareem Maddox ’11 in Poland, Davis may find himself playing overseas next basketball season.
“I’m looking forward to it; it seems like it will be fun,” he added. “I’m up for the challenge, wherever.”