Princeton tops Yale to win Ivy tourney, clinches NCAA berth

Princeton holds up the Ivy League Basketball Tournament Trophy following an NCAA college basketball championship game in the Ivy League Tournament, Sunday, March 12, 2017, in Philadelphia. Princeton won 71-59. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — As Steven Cook boasted about accomplishing the rare feat of going 14-0 in the Ivy League, Mitch Henderson stopped him mid-sentence.

“Sixteen-and-0,” the Princeton head coach corrected.

Yup, that’s even better.

Myles Stephens had a career-high 23 points and eight rebounds and Princeton won the inaugural Ivy League Tournament, beating Yale 71-59 Sunday to clinch its first berth in the NCAA Tournament since 2011.

“I’m so proud of the team,” Henderson said. “I’m so happy to be their coach. And we’re thrilled to be representing the league in the NCAA Tournament.”

Princeton (23-6) won its 19th straight game and didn’t lose in Ivy play this season — which, in any other year, would have been more than enough to secure the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

But the Tigers’ path was much more difficult this season with the addition of a four-team conference tournament. A day earlier, Princeton overcame a 10-point deficit in the second half and topped Penn in overtime at the Palestra, the Quakers’ home court.

Until this year, the Ivy had been the last Division I conference not to hold a tourney, sending its regular-season winner to the NCAA Tournament since the league was formed in 1956.

“This experience this weekend made us a lot better team,” Henderson said. “I’m really fired up about the opportunity we have. It can end really quickly and the guys know that. But they’re playing with a fearlessness I think you need going into the tournament.”

The Tigers have proved a dangerous opponent at times come the NCAAs. In their last appearance, they lost to Kentucky 59-57 — in 1996, they upended defending national champion UCLA when Henderson played for Princeton.

And the Ivy League has been successful in the Big Dance in recent years, too, with Yale, Harvard and Cornell all winning games since 2010.

“The way we’re playing right now, I think it’s hard to stop us,” Cook said. “If we keep playing consistent on the offensive and the defensive end, I think wherever we end up in the tournament, we can be trouble.”

Cook, a senior, made sure his college career would not end without a trip to the NCAA Tournament. He scored 15 points and classmate Spencer Weisz, the Ivy League Player of the Year, finished with eight assists.

Devin Cannady added 13 points for the Tigers, who pulled away in the second half. Stephens, the tournament MVP who set his previous career high with 21 points in the semifinals, scored 10 points in the first 5 minutes of the second half to push Princeton to a 47-39 lead.

The Tigers led by as many as 14 from there, shooting 52 percent from the field and hitting seven 3-pointers in the second half. Princeton students rushed the Palestra court to celebrate.

“It’s definitely a special moment,” said Stephens, a sophomore. “I grew up around the program. In high school, I came to all the games. At the beginning of the year, the coach said, ‘We’re getting a banner for the seniors.’ And that’s the most important thing for us right now — that these guys get to go to the tournament.”

Alex Copeland had 14 points and Sam Downey added 12 for third-seeded Yale (18-11), the Ivy champs last season.

Yale reached the tournament title game by knocking off rival Harvard 73-71 in the second semifinal Saturday for its fourth straight win.

The Bulldogs had three big dunks in the first half to go ahead 23-16, before Princeton rallied to take a 31-29 halftime lead and took control in the second half.

“It’s a tough turnaround but that’s the way the tournament is set up,” Yale coach James Jones said. “We didn’t do a great job of making shots today.”

BIG PICTURE

Yale: Long an afterthought in the Ivy, the Bulldogs have become one of the league’s premier teams over the past few years. In their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 1962 last year, they upset Baylor in the first round. And a year before that, they came within a game of the NCAAs, losing to Harvard in a one-game playoff — also at the Palestra.

Princeton: Despite losing key starters Hans Branse and Henry Caruso to injury early in the 2016-17 campaign, the Tigers returned to the top of the Ivy League.

STARS ALIGNING

Jones, the longest-tenured coach in the Ivy League, marveled at how Princeton was able to win all 16 games vs. Ivy League opponents, calling it “almost impossible” how they pulled out some close wins — particularly the Tigers’ dramatic semifinal triumph over Penn.

“Sometimes the stars align and you get Orion,” the Yale coach said.

PLAYOFF PARTIES

Although this is the first Ivy League Tournament, there were 10 previous Ivy League playoff games to determine the NCAA bid when teams ended the regular season tied.

In one of those games, Princeton and Yale collided at the same Palestra venue after the two teams, along with Penn, split the Ivy League title three ways. Yale defeated Princeton that year before losing to Penn to miss out on the NCAA Tournament.

UP NEXT

Yale: The Bulldogs await word if they’ll be invited to the NIT.

Princeton: The Tigers are headed to their 25th NCAA Tournament. If they can pull off a first-round upset, they would match the program’s longest winning streak at 20 games.

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