PHILADELPHIA -- There is no early admission to the NCAA tournament for Princeton or Harvard.
It's a tie for the title and the brainy Ivy Leaguers are set for their toughest test yet: A one-game playoff for the outright conference championship that automatically puts the winner into the 68-team field.
The Tigers forced a share of the championship and the playoff with a 70-58 win over Penn on Tuesday night. Princeton and Harvard will play Saturday at Yale's John J. Lee Amphitheater in New Haven, Conn., in a one-game playoff for the league's automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.
"I am loving this moment," Tigers guard Dan Mavraides said. "We're Ivy League champions. We're putting 2011 up on that banner."
It will be the seventh playoff in Ivy history, and the first since Yale, Penn and Princeton were tied at the end of the 2001-02 regular season -- the only three-way tie in conference history.
The time for studying game film can wait. This was a night to enjoy a slice of Ancient Eight history.
Coach Sydney Johnson embraced his team and coaching staff as the final seconds ticked off the clock. He glanced at the scoreboard, pumped his fist and rubbed his head as he walked toward Penn's bench for congratulatory handshakes.
Tigers smiled down the line, then sprinted over to the corner bleachers to enjoy the moment with family, friends and fans. The players waved them all down to the court for hugs and photos, then rushed to the locker room for a celebration.
Princeton (24-6, 12-2 Ivy) hopes a bigger one awaits.
Perhaps no Tiger appreciated the moment like Johnson. He was a three-time team captain, the 1997 Ivy League Player of the Year and led the Tigers to two NCAA tournaments. He understands the pressure that comes in a program that regularly competed for NCAA tournaments under former coach Pete Carril.
"I got to be honest," Johnson said. "I've dreamed about this moment for a long time."
Princeton has not played in the NCAA tournament since 2004.
"That was my goal, for our players, I wanted them to have the experience that I had," Johnson said. "I had dreamed about it and dreamed about it and dreamed about. Now, they have it."
Harvard (23-5, 12-2) has not appeared in the NCAA tournament since 1946, and it was the only Ivy League school that had not won a championship since the conference was formed in 1956-57.
The teams split a pair of games during the regular season. The Tigers, who have the third-highest win total in team history, won 65-61 on Feb. 4. Kyle Casey scored a season-high 24 points to lead Harvard to a 79-67 victory over Princeton on Saturday.
Kareem Maddox scored 21 of his 23 points in the second half for the Tigers.
Princeton orange was scattered around the bleachers of the famed Palestra for the biggest Ivy League game of the season.
Of course, that distinction now shifts to the neutral site at Yale. The Ivies would consider Harvard and Princeton co-champions, but the automatic berth in the NCAA tournament would go to the winner of the one-game playoff.
"It's a heck of a grind and it's really hard to do," Johnson said. "There's not much to do, but hug and cry like a baby."
The Tigers started an 11-0 run midway through the second half to the delight of the hundreds of fans dressed in orange.
Princeton ran plays for easy baskets inside to chip away at an eight-point deficit, but pulled away with 3s. Patrick Saunders started the run with a 3, and Douglas Davis and Saunders hit consecutive 3-pointers for a 55-42 lead.
The Tigers shot 14 of 18 from the field in the second half and pushed the lead to 14 points.
Johnson led the Tigers to a share of their 26th Ivy League title. Princeton ends a six-season drought without an Ivy League title, an eternity for a program that went to the NCAAs six times in the 1990s.
The Quakers don't get a second chance at March Madness because there is no conference tournament. Coach Jerome Allen said he'll take his daughter roller skating Saturday instead of watching the Ivy final. And he won't lobby for a postseason tourney for the single-bid league.
"We had 14 chances to make it to the dance," Allen said.
There's one more opportunity ahead for the Tigers.
"It's the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," Mavraides said.
Wait until Saturday.
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