Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 12
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
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CATFIGHT: Princeton University men’s basketball player Douglas Davis heads to the basket last Thursday in Princeton’s NCAA round of 64 clash against Kentucky at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Fla. Junior guard Davis, a former Hun School standout, scored 13 points but it wasn’t enough as 13th-seeded Princeton dropped a 59-57 nailbiter to No. 4 Kentucky. The Tigers led the Wildcats by five points twice during the second half but lost on a last-second layup by Kentucky freshman star Brandon Knight.

Nearly Producing Another NCAA Shocker for the Ages, PU Men’s Basketball Drops 59-57 Nailbiter to Kentucky

Bill Alden

The photo of a screaming Mitch Henderson leaping through the air is the iconic image of the stunning 43-41 upset posted by the 13th-seeded Princeton University men’s basketball team over No. 4 UCLA in the opening round of the 1996 NCAA tournament.

Last Thursday, Princeton senior guard Dan Mavraides channeled his inner Henderson, floating above the court and pumping his fist upon landing after nailing a jumper to lift 13th-seeded Princeton into a 57-57 tie with No. 4 Kentucky with 38 seconds remaining in regulation in an NCAA round of 64 contest at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Fla.

This time, though, Princeton couldn’t repeat history as Kentucky’s Brandon Knight hit a layup with two seconds left and a desperation heave by the Tigers’ Kareem Maddox fell short of the mark after the buzzer as the Tigers dropped a 59-57 heartbreaker before a roaring crowd of 14,835 and a national television audience of millions.

Mavraides, for his part, never lost confidence that the Tigers could pull off a shocker to rival the 1996 triumph.

“We drew a play to try to throw it down the court; we knew it was going to be tough but we believed,” recalled Mavraides, who ended the game with a team-high 14 points as Princeton finished the season with a 25-7 record.

“In our last game against Harvard, we were down by one with 2.8 seconds left and you are not thinking that you are going to win the game but we did. So from that situation, we definitely believed. We were hoping to get a good shot. Who knows, maybe it is our year if Kareem makes that heave.”

Early on last Thursday, it didn’t look like Princeton was going to have a shot to win as it fell behind 11-2 in the first five minutes.

“I don’t know what it was for us, maybe another big stage, a little jitters or something but they took a little early lead,” said Mavraides, reflecting on the early deficit. “But I knew we would settle in. We always have this season.”

Princeton head coach Sydney Johnson looked to settle down Mavraides and Douglas Davis before things got out of hand.

“I pulled Dan and Doug over and said fellas we are getting what we want, we are in good shape,” said Johnson. “They said ‘yeah, yeah I know coach’ and were nodding. Even though we were down, we felt like we were in the game. We got the looks we wanted.”

Davis, for his part, started taking advantage of those looks, scoring 13 points over a seven-minute stretch as Princeton knotted the game at 28-28.

“I don’t know, the ball was falling and I was able to get open for my teammates to set me up,” said Davis. “We just ran off and I was able to get open and knock down some shots.”

When the teams went into the dressing room with the Wildcats clinging to a 34-33 lead, a sense started to grow in the arena that Princeton could knock off Kentucky.

In the second half, the Tigers had its orange and black painted rooting section in the corner of the arena dancing for joy as it forged ahead 36-34 and then increased its advantage to 44-39 with 12:14 remaining in the half.

Mavraides could see the Wildcat players getting worried. “There were a couple of big shots where they started putting their heads down,” recalled Mavraides.

“There was one time where Kareem was stuck and pulled up and made a turnaround jump shot and I saw all of them put their heads down and jog down the court. I definitely felt like we had them on their heels for a little bit there.”

Showing its talent, Kentucky went on a 14-4 run to take a 53-48 lead with 6:30 remaining.

The Tigers seemed to be reeling but their coach wasn’t going to let them give up.

“I love this team and they have battled so much and I didn’t understand why they felt down,” said Johnson, who got 11 points and eight rebounds from Ian Hummer with Maddox chipping in 12 points, three rebounds, and a career-high three steals.

“I mean, we’ve been down but we’ve never played like a team that doesn’t feel good about themselves and doesn’t have a bit of swagger. So I was pretty animated about that. We’ve come a long way, we are a terrific team and we seemed to smile in the face of adversity and so I wanted them to be that way as opposed to OK, we have got a battle.”

Responding to Johnson’s message, the Princeton players regained their swagger down the homestretch. Hummer hit a layup and a free throw to narrow the gap to 53-51. Minutes later, Mavraides hit a jumper to pull the Tigers to within two at 55-53. After the Wildcats extended their lead to 57-53, Maddox canned a jumper to make it a two-point game again.

A rebound by Hummer with 1:06 left in regulation set the stage for Mavraides’ dramatic game-tying shot. “I think it was an out of bounds play,” said Mavraides, reflecting on the dramatic bucket.

“I kind of got a ball screen and I was driving to the middle and I was able to create space on the step-back and I was open. I thought it was as good as any shot we were going to get in that possession so I just let it go up and it went in.”

The Wildcats got the ball and called a timeout with 34 seconds left to set up a final play. Freshman guard Knight took matters into his own hands as he drove hard to the basket and bounced in a sprawling layup over the outstretched arm of Maddox, the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year.

Princeton couldn’t match Knight’s big shot as the Maddox heave missed the mark and the Tigers were left hanging their heads, ruing their missed opportunity.

Marvraides praised Knight for cashing in on his chance for glory as the freshman star scored his only points of the contest.

“I think it was a difficulty 10 layup,” said Mavraides. “Kareem is our longest and best defender. There’s no one else I would rather have on him in that late-game situation. Before that, he was 0-for-7 but he made the one that counted. It was a great shot; you’ve got to tip your hat to him.”

And you’ve got to tip your hat to Princeton for the skill and guts it displayed in nearly pulling off another NCAA shocker for the ages.

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