PHILADELPHIA — These are the games that make you better.
It’s why Princeton coach Mitch Henderson was willing to take his team on the road into a hostile environment.
It’s also why it hurts to lose for the first time.
Erik Reynolds II scored 21 points, including six clutch free throws in the final two minutes, and Saint Joseph’s handed the Tigers a 74-70 setback that knocked them from the ranks of the unbeatens on Sunday afternoon in front of an electric crowd at Hagan Arena.
Princeton (9-1) entered the day as one of eight remaining undefeated teams and would have set a new mark for best start in program history with a win.
“Guys were hanging their heads in the locker room, but it’s not always going to go our way,” Henderson said. “Thankfully, this isn’t happening in the league. It’s just one game. Great environment, great college basketball game and lots of things for us to take away from this one. I don’t really believe in good losses or anything like that, but they were terrific.”
Xaivian Lee led the Tigers with 20 points and Dalen Davis scored all 13 of his in the second half to keep them in the game. All five of Davis’ field goals — he was 5-of-5 overall with three treys — came in the last 9:30 minutes and after Princeton fell behind by seven.
Lee’s 3-pointer with 2:48 remaining gave Princeton a 68-65 lead, but Cameron Brown answered for the Hawks (8-2) with a side-step triple from the right wing as the shot clock was winding down.
While Reynolds made his free throws, the Tigers didn’t. Lee misfired on two from the line that would have put them back in front and Reynolds sank a pair with 1:35 left. Davis, who was otherwise perfect shooting the ball, then missed two at the 1:17 mark.
Still, Princeton could get the ball back with a chance to tie or go in front with a stop, but with Caden Pierce having fouled out, it couldn’t get the one defensive rebound it had to have. Instead, Cameron Brown soared in, ripped the ball away and tossed it back out to Reynolds, who swished two more free throws to make it a two-possession game.
“They were really all over us,” Henderson said. “I thought they played great. A great learning game for us. We’ve been on a nice elevator on the way to the penthouse, but a nice opportunity for us to learn and grow.”
Princeton was playing its sixth true road game of the season.
“That was probably the craziest atmosphere we played in,” Lee said. “We’ve had a lot of road games to start and I think we feed off the energy. Got to make free throws down the stretch. I personally like these big games and a lot of us feel the same way.”
Lynn Greer III finished with 18 points, Cameron Brown added 11 and Xzayvier Brown had 10 for St. Joe’s, which won its fifth straight game.
The Hawks rank top-30 nationally in scoring defense and field goal percentage defense, but the Tigers shot 47.3% — nearly 10 percentage points better than what St. Joe’s was allowing — and made 16 3-pointers.
“Every single time they raise up, you just think it’s going in,” St. Joe’s coach Billy Lange said. “Just imagine a life determined by a ball going in a basket. Some of the plays, I don’t know how we guard them better than that.”
What the Hawks ended up getting after 40 hard-fought minutes is what now stands as a quad-1 victory. Princeton had a NET Ranking of 11, although those fluctuate daily and whether that holds up as a quad-1 win depends on how the rest of the season plays out.
“Great afternoon for Philadelphia college basketball irregardless of what the result was,” Lange said. “That type of atmosphere in an arena of one of our six Division I schools here is great for the ecosystem of Philadelphia basketball. Princeton is a great team. Not a good team, a great team. Their players are great, not good, great. We had to play really well and we played well when we needed to.”
It was the kind of game that should be played more often.
“It’s not a home and home,” Henderson said. “We don’t dictate our schedule. We say yes to everybody that wants to play us that’s good.”