As Myles Stephens dribbled out the clock in Princeton’s 71–59 win in the Ivy League Tournament final over Yale, confetti started streaming down on the Palestra hardwood.
Time still remained on the clock — and the confetti needed to be cleared off the court before the final buzzer would sound — but the Ivy League could not help itself. Its first playoff tournament had run about as perfectly as it could have hoped, and it deserved to celebrate early.
Ancient Eight fans were skeptical about how the weekend would play out. They no doubt treasured the Ivy League’s uniqueness — or elitism, depending how you see things — in holding out against college basketball’s push toward playoff tournaments and huge TV contracts. The regular season truly mattered in this tradition-minded conference, and the tournament would change that.
But everyone who stepped foot in the hallowed arena immediately forgot those concerns. The basketball was competitive and entertaining. The crowds were enthralled. And there was an energy about the weekend that sustained those who made it through all four of Saturday’s semifinal contests and both finals, which crowned Stephens’ Tigers and the top-seeded Penn women’s team.
Here are some takeaways from the weekend.
Threes reign supreme. While the close games may have sparked older fans’ memories of the past glory of the Ancient Eight, the brand of basketball played this weekend was no throwback. Outside shooting, not play in the paint, was a deciding factor in most of the playoff matchups.
Princeton drained 11 threes in its triumph over the Bulldogs, who struggled to defend the perimeter all day. Yale trailed by just two points at halftime, but Stephens, Devin Cannady and Steven Cook each hit two shots from beyond the arc in the second half to distance the undefeated Tigers from the Elis.
Though forward and Ivy League Player of the Year Michelle Nwokedi led the Penn women’s team all season, three-pointers from guards Anna Ross and Beth Brzozowski were critical in the team’s wins over Brown and Princeton en route to the league title.
Meanwhile, Harvard freshman phenom Bryce Aiken calmly knocked down five treys in the Crimson’s close 73–71 loss to Yale on Saturday. Again and again, distance shooters converted key buckets that changed the course of these games. Interior defense and post play were still important, but the weekend illustrated that every legitimate Ivy League contender will need one or two lights-out shooters from beyond the arc.
Fountains of youth. ESPN commentator Dick Vitale made the phrase “diaper dandy” synonymous with emerging freshman talent in March Madness, but Ivy Madness, too, abounded with young stars.
Princeton coach Mitch Henderson pointed to the emergence of Stephens and Cannady, two sophomores, as the turning point in the Tigers’ season, which culminated in a 16–0 sweep through conference play.
Aiken, meanwhile, single-handedly kept the Crimson in the game against Yale with deadly accuracy from the top of the key. His opponents were not much older, as Jordan Bruner ’20 and Miye Oni ’20 provided game-changing electricity with SportsCenter-quality dunks and blocks. And guard Alex Copeland ’19 led the Elis in scoring on Sunday as they tried to keep pace with the Tigers.
The hometown Quakers started three freshmen — and nearly pulled off a mammoth upset of the tournament champions, leading for the entirety of regulation before Princeton won in overtime.
On the women’s side, there were no fewer underclassman standouts. Princeton’s freshman Bella Alarie was the best player on the floor in the Tigers’ semifinal win over Harvard, which touted a future star of its own in Katie Benzan.
Rivalries return. The Ivy League certainly lucked out with the inaugural tournament’s matchups. Both men’s semifinals featured enduring rivalries in Penn-Princeton and Harvard-Yale, and the women’s final gave Quaker fans redemption over the hated Tigers.
Familiarity breeds contempt, and this was the third faceoff between each of these pairs this season. The playoff atmosphere breathed new life into these rivalries, which is good for the sport and the league.
What do you do about the Palestra? There was a reason the Ivy League handed Penn and the Palestra the first tournament. It is the premier basketball venue in the Ivy League and among the best in the country. It paired history with freshness, intimacy with impressive capacity. The place breathes basketball, and its charm made the tournament complete.
Yet the thorny issue of home-court advantage makes the Palestra problematic, and this seemed to be on everyone’s mind over the weekend. Princeton women’s head coach Courtney Banghart said Penn earned its home court this season, and she hoped the Tigers would earn it next year. Quaker fans undoubtedly provided a boost for Penn, even if there was an Ivy logo on center court plastered over the Penn one.
Will the location rotate? Next year’s host has not yet been decided. Banghart would certainly not be alone in complaining if Penn hosted the tournament again next season. Princeton’s near-defeat to the home team on Saturday would only have exacerbated this issue.
But not all Ivy League arenas are created equal. In terms of size, atmosphere and history, the Palestra is indeed superior. It was an added draw for fans, whose money, at the end of the day, is the priority of the league.
No one can stop Penn. They didn’t always play their best, but that didn’t matter for the Quaker women. They won the Ivy League title for a second-straight season and fell only once—to Yale in a shocker—in the Ancient Eight campaign. Nwokedi was a force on both ends of the floor, and the Penn defense stymied the two of the top three best offenses in the league this weekend in Brown and Princeton.
This was no fluke — in the regular season, the Quakers conceded just 50.4 points per game.
Four teams worked. With only four slots in the tournament, the Ivy League successfully maintained the importance of the regular season while making the final weekend all the more exciting. As Banghart said in her press conference, there is enough “depth and breadth” in the conference to justify the tournament and to make the games competitive. All eight teams would have been too much and cheapened the regular season. But every team had something to play for as the season wound down, and this was a boon to the league.