March 22, 2017

Tiger Men’s Hoops Edged by Notre Dame in NCAAs As Valiant Rally Comes Up Just Short in 60-58 Loss

STANDING TALL: Princeton University men’s basketball head coach Mitch Henderson surveys the action in a game this winter. Last Thursday, Henderson’s squad nearly engineered a major upset as the 12th-seeded Tigers fell 60-58 to fifth-seeded Notre Dame in the opening round of the NCAA tournament at the KeyCenter in Buffalo, N.Y. The loss snapped a 19-game winning streak for Princeton and left it with a final record of 23-7. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

The luck of the Irish came a few hours early as the Notre Dame men’s basketball team battled Princeton on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day last week in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

After building a 45-34 lead over 12th-seeded Princeton early in the second half last Thursday, the fifth-seeded Fighting Irish were on their heels as the Tigers clawed back into the West Region contest.

The Notre Dame lead shrunk to 59-58 and the Fighting Irish found themselves in the vortex of March Madness as Princeton got the ball with 11 seconds left and a chance to win but a Devin Cannady shot rimmed out with the 17,806 on hand at the KeyCenter in Buffalo, N.Y. gasping as one. Notre Dame rebounded the miss and added a free throw with a second left to prevail 60-58.

Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson believed that a Tiger upset was on the way as Cannady’s shot flew towards the rim.

“I thought that shot was going in; Devin’s shot was the right look for us,” said Henderson.

Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey knew that his team was lucky to edge the Tigers, pointing to its defense on the perimeter as a key factor, as the Fighting Irish held Princeton to 8-of-31 shooting from three-point range.

“I am thrilled about our defense to keep them under 40 percent and really guard the arc,” said Brey. “That’s how we were going to escape and we did escape.”

In Henderson’s view, Princeton’s defense sparked its dramatic rally. “You watch Notre Dame on tape and it is a patient, slow team; in the game it is even slower,” said Henderson, whose team saw a 19-game winning streak snapped by the loss as it ended up with a final record of 23-7.

“It forces you to get out of your comfort zone and it really challenges all of the principles that you have defensively. I thought we settled in. We didn’t play a great game offensively but I thought we really gave ourselves the chance to win the game on the defensive end during that run.”

Princeton senior star Steven Cook never doubted that the Tigers were going to fight to the end.

“In a situation like that, you are trying to do everything you can to claw back,” said Cook.

“I thought we really weren’t sharp the majority of the game. We have been playing a lot better the majority of the year. At the end we started to get back to our old ways and make some stops and make some shots. Sometimes it falls short.”

For Henderson, the Princeton comeback exemplified the resilience the squad displayed all winter long.

“This team has been punched in the face a little bit throughout the course of the season but they have always been able to respond,” said Henderson, who got 15 points from Spencer Weisz in the defeat with Cook adding 11 points and seven rebounds and sophomore star Myles Stephens contributing 10 points, five rebounds, and two blocked shots.

“I have been on teams where that doesn’t happen. They did a great job but I was pleased with the chances that we had.”

Getting tested by an improved Ivy League helped steel the Tigers for the clash with the Fighting Irish.

“What you see now is the product of three or four months of having to run through the league, it is not the least bit surprising to me that we are here,” said Henderson, whose team went 14-0 in regular season league play and then won two games in the inaugural Ivy tournament to earn a berth in the NCAA tourney.

“The talent level in the league is very high and the coaching is very high. We had a really good shot today; I felt good about it.”

Henderson feels very good about what the Tigers accomplished this winter.

“It was such an enjoyable team to coach and I have to thank our seniors, in particular Steve and Spencer, for their leadership,” said Henderson.

“We lost two guys earlier in the season. Right now this one hurts. When you are in the locker room afterwards it is really hard to say the proper thank you because it feels like goodbye. We are here because of these guys; they made us a championship team again. We are thankful for that. They represented both Princeton basketball and Princeton University in a first class way. I am proud of them.”

Weisz and Cook exerted a major influence on and off the court for the program.

“Spencer has allowed us to play a certain way; we are very difficult to guard and then Steve, we were just in the locker room and his teammates were saying some pretty incredible things about him,” said Henderson.

“He truly makes you want to be a better person when you are around him. He is an academic All-American, our first since 1998. He deserves every bit of that recognition.”

Cook, for his part, is leaving with some incredible memories of his final campaign.

“I think this year has been amazing for us, accomplishing 16-0 in the Ivy League, getting the program back to the NCAA tournament and its winning ways, and accomplishing everything we set out to do,” said Cook.

“I have done it with people I consider my family and it is emotional for it to come to an end. I am going to cherish everything I have put into this program and these four years.”

Weisz echoed Cook’s sentiments as he reflected the program’s first NCAA appearance since 2011.

“I am just so proud of the team we became; early on we had our rough patches certainly,” said Weisz.

“Guys went down, people stepped up, roles changed but nonetheless we were always committed to our goals and it showed. We had a great run. We hadn’t lost in a while. It hurts for us right now certainly and you want out to go with a win and a deep tournament run. We gave it our all. I am proud of the guys. It has been an unbelievable year. It has been an unbelievable four years. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”

And neither could the fans on hand last Thursday afternoon in Buffalo as the Tigers battled the Fighting Irish tooth and nail to the final buzzer.