Princeton Falters in 2nd Half Against Texas; Loss Leaves Tigers Hungry for NCAA Encore
By Bill Alden
Sounding like a jet airliner thundering down a runway, a ripple of cheers built to a crescendo at the Pepsi Center in Denver last Thursday.
With the Princeton men's basketball team forging an eight-point lead over Texas in the first half of the NCAA tournament opening round contest, the throng of 19,286 realized they might be witnessing another epic NCAA performance by the upstart Tigers.
At the half, the din was constant as 14th seeded Princeton jogged into the dressing room with a 25-22 lead over third-seeded Texas and visions of pulling off a shocker like the Tigers' upset of UCLA in the 1996 NCAA tourney.
But after the break, the shooting eyes of Texas sharpened considerably as Brandon Mouton hit a trio of three-point bombs to help the Longhorns transform their halftime deficit into a 46-33 lead with 11:42 remaining in regulation.
Fighting back valiantly, the Tigers trimmed the Texas margin to 56-48 with 3:45 left but never got closer as they fell 66-49 to end their season with a 20-8 mark.
Nationally-ranked Texas went on to top North Carolina 78-75 on Saturday and will face Xavier this Friday in the Atlanta regional semifinals.
After Thursday's setback, Princeton reflected on the stinging disappointment of putting another Top 25 power on the ropes only to fall short.
³We have a group of 15 players, four coaches, trainer and manager who are extremely disappointed right now," said Tiger head coach John Thompson III glumly, reflecting on a game in which his team was outscored 44-24 in the second half. "We came here to win and we are disappointed that we weren't able to do that."
Princeton junior forward Andre Logan made no effort to hide his frustration at the latest near miss in a season that saw the Tigers fall short against such major conference teams as Duke, Oklahoma, Minnesota, and Rutgers.
"We played solid defense," asserted Logan, who helped the Tigers hold the Longhorns to 32 percent shooting in the first half.
"We have been in a position to win against a lot of big name teams we have played this year. We weren¹t hitting shots in the first half and we were still up by nine."
Sophomore guard Scott Greenman thought Princeton had Texas where it wanted it in the first half. "We were getting stops and rebounds early," recalled a red-eyed Greenman. "It was our tempo and everything was how we wanted it."
The Longhorns' deadly shooting and dominance on the boards, however, turned the tide. "They shot ridiculously from the three-point line and were getting a ton of offensive rebounds," added a rueful Greenman, whose analysis was borne out by the stat sheet which showed that Texas went 7-for-8 from beyond the arc in the second half and outrebounded Princeton 22-10 over the last 20 minutes.
"We got outrebounded by 20 and you are not going to win too many games when that happens. We didn't make shots and they were making what they shot."
While not one for moral victories, Thompson wasn't about to let the pain of the setback to Texas dim the accomplishments of a campaign which saw Princeton rip off a late season nine-game winning streak in cruising to the Ivy League crown with a 13-1 conference mark.
"This was a successful year no matter how we feel right now," said Thompson, who got a team-high 16 points from Will Venable against Texas on a day when the squad shot 35.3 percent from the field.
"We had an extremely focused group that had a goal to play in the tournament. It started with Ed [Persia] and the drive that he has. Everyone fed off of that."
With the Tigers returning everybody but senior co-captain Persia, Thompson believes that something good could come out of last Thursday's setback.
"This loss is going to stick with us for a while," lamented Thompson, who spent time at the regional fending off rumors that he may be a candidate for the now-vacant Georgetown coaching job once held by his father, Hall of Fame Coach John Thompson.
"This hurts. The group of returning guys has to take from this. They need to understand the hard work it takes to get back here and the even harder work it takes to win here."
Logan, the only returner who was also with the program when it fell 70-48 to North Carolina in its last NCAA appearance in 2001, believes the loss to Texas will sharpen the team's focus.
"Losing to Carolina made us hungrier," said Logan, who had eight points against the Longhorns. "We worked harder in the offseason. We don't want to do the same thing and lose in the first round. The most important thing is working hard individually in the offseason to get us in a position to help the team."
If the Tigers can produce that kind of dedication, they may earn the approving roar of a crowd at the end of an NCAA opening round victory next season