Se­lec­tion Sun­day

All the news you need to count down to the NCAA tour­na­ment

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - sports@wash­post.com

philadel­phia — Mitch Hen­der­son is about as Prince­ton as a Prince­ton man can be. He was an ex­cel­lent bas­ket­ball player for the Tigers un­der the leg­endary Pete Car­ril and the al­most-leg­endary Bill Car­mody. He was co-cap­tain of the 1998 team that went un­de­feated in the Ivy League en route to a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tour­na­ment and a 27-2 record. He even looks ex­actly the way a Prince­ton coach should look: per­fectly tai­lored suit, white shirt, Prince­ton or­ange-and­black tie. He rarely lets any­one see him sweat.

Ex­cept there he was Satur­day af­ter­noon, in the midst of the caul­dron that was the Palestra, turn­ing to the Prince­ton fans and madly wav­ing his arms — de­mand­ing all the noise they could muster with

Penn and Prince­ton locked in a tie with less than five min­utes to play.

Wel­come to the Ivy League tour­na­ment.

It only took the league 60 years to get around to play­ing a post­sea­son tour­na­ment, and — even in do­ing so — only the top four men’s and women’s teams made it to the Palestra for a semi­fi­nal quadru­ple-header Satur­day and the fi­nals Sun­day.

“Best win I ever had,” Hen­der­son said after his topseeded team sur­vived in over­time, 72-64, de­spite not lead­ing for a sec­ond in reg­u­la­tion. “Penn was ter­rific. I told Coach [Steve] Don­ahue that. There was no way to pre­pare for this. I think it’s great for the play­ers to have a chance to play in a tour­na­ment like this. I hope I would say that if we had lost.”

Prince­ton came in here with ev­ery rea­son to be up­set that the eight Ivy League pres­i­dents de­cided this fi­nally was the year to hold a tour­na­ment. Not only had the Tigers gone 14-0 — the pro­gram’s first un­de­feated league cam­paign since Hen­der­son was a se­nior — and won the reg­u­lar sea­son ti­tle by four games, they had to play fourth-seeded Penn on the Quak­ers’ home court.

And even though Prince­ton had al­most as many fans in the build­ing as Penn did and the Ivy League cov­ered all of Penn’s lo­gos on the floor with its own, there was no get­ting around that the game was played in West Philadel­phia in the cathe­dral of col­lege bas­ket­ball — an iconic part of the Penn cam­pus.

“Ac­tu­ally, my ma­jor con­cern was get­ting my guys to un­der­stand that play­off bas­ket­ball is just dif­fer­ent,” Hen­der­son said. “It’s far more phys­i­cal. We took about 10 hay­mak­ers from them. For­tu­nately, this is a very tough group.”

Don­ahue, who came back to Penn two years ago to re­build the Quak­ers from the deep dive they had been in, also used box­ing analo­gies to de­scribe the game. Asked how he felt with a 44-34 lead early in the sec­ond half, he said, “I knew we were go­ing to have to take an­other punch.”

Hay­mak­ers? Punches? Coaches wav­ing their arms as fans were los­ing their minds on just about ev­ery pos­ses­sion?

You bet, this is the Ivy League circa 2017. There is noth­ing gen­teel about it. All four men’s teams in Satur­day’s semi­fi­nal dou­ble­header — Yale beat Har­vard, 73-71, in the just-as­in­tense sec­ond game — played tough, fight-through-ev­eryscreen de­fense. Ev­ery re­bound was fought for. Ev­ery pass was chal­lenged.

The league is com­mit­ted to play­ing a tour­na­ment for at least three years but is only locked in to the Palestra for this sea­son. After Satur­day, home-court ad­van­tage or not, there should be no doubt about where the tour­na­ment is held in all fu­ture years.

“An­other great game in a won­der­ful build­ing,” Yale Coach James Jones said. He smiled. “Glad to win one in here.”

The first bas­ket in tour­na­ment his­tory was scored by Ryan Bet­ley, a baby-faced Penn fresh­man who played his high school ball 38 miles from here at Down­ing­town West. He fin­ished with 18 points and 12 re­bounds as Penn, which got here only by hit­ting a buzzer-beater to beat Har­vard on March 4, made the game ev­ery bit as phys­i­cal as Hen­der­son had an­tic­i­pated.

When se­nior Matt Howard hit a baby jumper in the lane that hit the rim at least three times to give Penn a 59-57 lead with 43 sec­onds left, then grabbed a re­bound on Prince­ton’s en­su­ing pos­ses­sion and was fouled with 12 sec­onds left, it looked like a ma­jor up­set might hap­pen.

But Howard missed the front end of the one-and-one. The Tigers’ Amir Bell took the ball to the bas­ket — and missed. Myles Stephens promptly grabbed the re­bound and tied the game with five sec­onds left.

“I knew the ball might come off, and it came right into my hands, and I was able to put it in,” said Stephens, who fin­ished with 21 points and 10 re­bounds. “I was in the right place at the right time.”

Don­ahue, who was an as­sis­tant coach at Penn for 10 years be­fore go­ing on to lead Cor­nell to three Ivy League ti­tles, thought that was a per­fect de­scrip­tion of the game: “One play,” he said. “That’s what the game ul­ti­mately came down to. And Stephens made that play.”

Stephens’s put­back was eerily sim­i­lar to Josh Hart’s gamewin­ning re­bound bas­ket for Vil­lanova in Fri­day’s Big East semi­fi­nal game against Se­ton Hall. “All our guys saw that,” Hen­der­son said. “I told them be­fore the game this might come down to a play like that. This game was al­most ex­actly what I thought it would be.”

Once the game went into over­time, Prince­ton dom­i­nated, with Stephens scor­ing the first two bas­kets to start a 9-0 run that de­cided the out­come.

“Jeez, they didn’t lead in reg­u­la­tion?” Don­ahue said, clearly stunned when some­one brought it up after the game. “That’s amaz­ing.”

In truth, the day was amaz­ing — every­thing the Ivy League could have hoped for.

“Took the Su­per Bowl 51 years to have an over­time game. Took us one,” Robin Har­ris, the league’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, said with a Cheshire-cat grin.

For years, the Ivy League re­sisted calls to play a tour­na­ment if only be­cause the eight school pres­i­dents are al­ways try­ing to prove they’re dif­fer­ent and above the fray of money-chas­ing big-time sports. But when Har­vard and Yale played here two years ago in a one-game play­off for the league ti­tle, the old gym was al­most full, the at­mos­phere was elec­tric, and the game, won by Har­vard, was su­perb.

Ev­ery­one took no­tice. What’s more, this is no longer a league that con­sists of Penn and Prince­ton and six other schools. Har­vard, un­der Tommy Amaker, not only won or shared five straight ti­tles, it up­set a No. 3 seed and a No. 5 seed in back-to-back sea­sons in the NCAA tour­na­ment. A year ago, un­der James Jones, Yale won its first con­fer­ence ti­tle since 1962, up­set Bay­lor in the first round of the NCAAs and then put a scare into Duke.

“This is a very good bas­ket­ball league,” Don­ahue said. “We’re a young team. Prince­ton is a young team. So are Har­vard and Yale.”

In fact, go­ing into the sea­son’s fi­nal week­end, all eight teams had a math­e­mat­i­cal chance to play here. Which is why con­fer­ence tour­na­ments make sense: They give ev­ery player hope.

“I’ll only get to play in this once,” Prince­ton se­nior Spencer Weisz said. “Go­ing for­ward, though, this is go­ing to be great thing for ev­ery­one who plays in this league.”

Prince­ton and Yale will meet in the fi­nal Sun­day at high noon. The game will, no doubt, be a don­ny­brook. That sort of game is now an Ivy League tour­na­ment tra­di­tion.

John Fe­in­stein

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