History repeats itself as Princeton again halts Yale’s 12-game winning streak

By Joel Alderman


“The only lesson you can learn from history is that it repeats itself.”
― Bangambiki Habyarimana, The Great Pearl of Wisdom

Unofficial translation:

“That which has happened in the past is bound to happen again.”

Princeton handl
Princeton downed Yale, 75-63, in New Jersey last week. (Photo courtesy: Princeton Athletics)

Yes,”it” happened again

In the history of the Yale and Princeton basketball programs, “it” finally happened again, but only after 67 years.

Riding a 12-game winning streak, Yale tipped off against Princeton on Friday (Feb. 19th) at Jadwin Gym, the Tigers’ lair. As Ivy League and a good number of other hoop fans now know, Princeton defeated the league leading Bulldogs, 75-63, their first loss of the season in what is often referred to as “the 14-game tournament.” As a result, the Tigers moved up to just a half game of first place Yale.

The next night both teams won their games. So with the season winding down, they are still in serious contention, along with a chance for Columbia, for the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

In 1949 there was an identical Yale streak with the same ending

Our research has uncovered a fascinating coincidence. The last time (1949) a Yale quintet had won exactly 12 consecutive games, its streak was also stopped by none other than Princeton. So on two occasions, 67 years and some generations apart (1949 and 2013), Yale won 12 in a row, but the 13th never came. Each time a Princeton team was the culprit.

The story of last Friday’s contest has been well circulated. So to draw some parallels to this odd similarity, I thought it would be of historical interest to go back in time and give some present day recognition to those happenings that took place on February 22, 1949.

Yale’s great season

Before describing how the 1949 streak was halted, here are the scores of the 12 games that Yale won in succession:

Columbia, 65-51
Army (away), 71-57
Cornell, 59-40
Fordham, 85-75
Providence, 88-51
Dartmouth (away), 62-41
Springfield, 68-42
Princeton, 74-48
Brown, 68-45
Navy, 64-47
Dartmouth, 71-43
Holy Cross, 60-52

The tide turned on Feb. 22, 1949

This year, 2016, Yale had won the previous meeting by four points at its John J. Lee Amphitheater in the Payne Whitney Gymnasium. In the rematch, Princeton was a slight favorite. One of the reasons was because this time Yale would be playing without its captain and the best Ivy League three-point shooter of last season, Jack Montague, for a reason not revealed to the time of this writing.

Yale star Tony Lavelli
Yale star Tony Lavelli led the 1949 team that saw its win streak snapped by Princeton.

While Princeton was favored by a few points last week, it was Yale that was a heavy favorite back in 1949. A few weeks earlier the Bulldogs, with 40 points from their master of the hook shot (and accordion), Tony Lavelli, “tore the hide off the Tiger in New Haven, 74-48,” wrote Allison Danzig, in The New York Times.

But Princeton’s cagey coach, Cappy Capon, used a strategy that would control Lavelli when they next met.

It took place in Dillon Gymnasium, before there was such a place as the current Jadwin Gym and about two years after a fire destroyed the old University Gymnasium in 1944.

While waiting for Dillon to be constructed, Princeton played three seasons in its Hobe Baker Hockey Rink on a portable basketball floor laid over the ice. That was about as incongruous as Yale shooting hoops in Ingalls Rink.

Capon had future football captain, George Sella, a near single wing all-American back, guarding Lavelli one on one from the front. The other defenders were in a 2-2 zone. The plan was to stop Lavelli the only way possible. That was to deny him the ball.

It worked. “Terrific” Tony, which was among his several nicknames, and whom the Princeton Alumni Weekly (March 4, 1949) described as “one of the great scorers in basketball history,” had only two baskets, though he did go 10 for 10 from the foul line.

Sella’s value that night was not only on defense. He was the game’s high scorer with 18 points. He eventually fouled out covering Lavelli, with Princeton just hanging on and 55 seconds left.

That game, played before a Winter Alumni Day crowd of 3,000, might well have been in the Yale Bowl or Palmer Stadium. Four football stars were in basketball uniforms, including the above-mentioned George Sella of Princeton.

On the Yale side there was the great Levi Jackson, its captain, and two of his backfield mates, Ferd Nadherny and Art FitzGerald. FitzGerald was a three sport star who succeeded George H. W. Bush as leader of the baseball team.

Lavelli, Jackson, Nadherny and Fitzgerald are all deceased. Nadherny died most recently. Fitzgerald lived his last years in North Haven, where he is buried.

Since Lavelli was the basketball captain, the presence of Jackson and Fitzgerald meant there were captains of three different Yale sports teams playing basketball together, a rarity that will probably never happen again.

Yale led virtually throughout the first twenty minutes, until Princeton’s Bill Clark hit two foul shots and the teams left the floor tied 23-23.

The visitors went ahead after the break, 26-23. Then the Tigers took the lead, 27-26 on baskets by Clark and Sella, and they stayed in front to the end.

Yale’s last gasp

Yale was still trailing, 47-42, in the last minute. With Sella now forced to the bench, a foul shot and a rebound brought the Bulldogs to within 47-45. That turned out to be the final score, although some anxious moments remained. In the last 15 seconds Yale missed four shots, any one of which could have tied the score. After the last one, Princeton grabbed the rebound. That was the end of the game and that was the end of Yale’s 12-game winning streak, 1949 version.

yale tony lavelli

This vintage photo appeared March 4, 1949, in the Princeton Alumni Weekly. It is reproduced here with the permission of that publication and with a reservation of any other rights.

Yale players, distinguishable by their numbers, are Dick Joyce (9), Tony Lavelli (8) and Art Fitzgerald (7). The Princeton player facing Fitzgerald is George Sella.

In a post-game comment, Lavelli, a consummate gentleman, admitted that the overall, Princeton defense was “just too much for us.” Yale went into that game 18-4, and then finished its regular season 22-6.

To bridge the gap in time, following is a reproduction of the box score:

Princeton Yale box

Click to enlarge.

Could history stage an encore?

Yale is hoping for more proof that history often does, in time, repeat itself. Despite that loss to Princeton in 1949, those Bulldogs were chosen for the NCAA Tournament. There was not yet a formal Ivy League then and therefore no automatic bid as is awarded today.

Instead, Yale was picked by the New England selection committee to represent its region, District One. In what was probably the game that gave Yale the tournament ticket, the team of Coach Howard Hobson had defeated the other top contender, Holy Cross, 60-52.

There were only eight teams in the entire tournament then. Yale, playing in the Eastern Regionals before 18,051 at Madison Square Garden, led most of the way against Illinois. However, the Fighting Illini came from behind in the final few minutes to take a four point decision.

Lavelli did not disappoint, however. “Tony’s unstoppable hook shot from any angle and his perfect free-throw shooting produced 27 points, making him the top man by a wide margin,” was how Louis Effrat put it in The New York Times. And for the first time, Yale was a part of what became known as March Madness.

Remember, that was the same year that Princeton stopped a Yale 12-game winning streak, but Yale still went on to the NCAA’s. Now, 67 years later and hoping for another rare tournament appearance, Yale had another 12-game winning streak that lasted until Princeton did the same thing as it did in 1949.

Is that a good omen for Yale?

We’ll know in a couple of weeks.

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