December 15, 2021

Sparked by Big Performance from Barnes Off the Bench, PU Men’s Hoops Tops UMBC 89-77, Improving to 9-3

BOOK OF ELIJAH: Princeton University men’s basketball player Elijah Barnes defends Keondre Kennedy of UMBC last Monday night at Jadwin Gym. Senior forward Barnes tallied nine points in 13 minutes off the bench against the Retrievers, going 4 of 4 from the floor, to help Princeton pull away to an 89-77 victory. The Tigers, now 9-3, will be on a hiatus for exams and will return to action when they host Kean University on December 21. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

With the Princeton University men’s basketball team deadlocked at 71-71 against UMBC last Monday evening at Jadwin Gym, an unlikely one-two tandem turned the tide in favor of the Tigers.

Little-used senior reserve Elijah Barnes scored seven points on a jumper, a dunk, and a three-pointer while senior star guard Jaelin Llewellyn hit a three-pointer and a layup to spark a 12-0 run as the Tigers pulled away to an 89-77 victory, posting their fourth straight win in improving to 9-3.

For Barnes, who had just played 33 minutes this season in six appearances off the bench entering Monday, coming up big was a matter of staying in the moment.

“I come to work every day in practice and try to be there for my teammates and support them,” said the 6’7, 215-pound Barnes, who ended up with nine points in 13 minutes on 4 of 4 shooting with two rebounds and a blocked shot.

“Whether it is helping somebody else get extra work in everyday or talking to Tosan [Evbuomwan], Zach [Martini], or Mason [Hooks] and making sure they know what they have to do. It prepares me. I watch to see that they are doing and what they need to do. As a senior, being here for a fifth year is big time. I have been around the program for a long time and I have waited my turn. I got an opportunity and I made the most of it so that is all anybody has to do.”

Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson was thrilled to see Barnes make the most of his opportunity against the Retrievers.

“I am very proud of Elijah; he hasn’t been playing but he comes in and he works every single day,” said Henderson.

“He never says anything other than in support for his teammates. In fact he is the best communicator about what is needed for other guys on the team in that moment, even if it’s somebody in his position. I am just really happy for him. Elijah was just amazing today.”

Llewellyn, who ended up with a game-high 24 points in the win, focused on taking the ball to the hoop.

“It was a key to the game, trying to get inside and look out when they closed in,” said Llewellyn. “I was just trying to get to the rim and be aggressive.”

Henderson credited Llewellyn with steadying the ship for the Tigers.

“Since the Drexel game, not that anything before that wasn’t great, his poise has been next level,” said Henderson.

“He has been super verbal on the court, talking all the time with his teammates. He is always drawing the other team’s best player.”

Princeton needed poise to overcome UMBC as it had a quick turnaround from an 84-73 win at Lafayette last Saturday.

“I put these guys in a really tough spot; at Lafayette and then one day of preparing for this,” said Henderson.

“We didn’t practice yesterday, we just walked through a bunch of stuff. We spent the first 25 or 30 minutes of the game just trying to figure out how to get sharper. We have exams coming up so this is a terrific win. That is a really difficult team to guard.”

In Henderson’s view, Princeton has been showing some good stuff 12 games into the season.

“I think we are a bit ahead of schedule, it has felt like a grind for these guys with the hard part of the schedule up front,” said Henderson.

“Traveling to Asheville and the going to Oregon State was difficult and they responded. A large part of that is the connectedness of the group. We have barely practiced. I have never practiced less because the game turnarounds have been so short and our schedule is quite different. I am really looking forward to practice once we get through exams, I am not sure they are.”

Barnes, for his part, believes the Tigers don’t shy away from hard tests.

“The biggest thing about our team is that when we hit adversity, we come together instead of spreading apart and going inward,” said Barnes.

“We come back to the bench and we talk about what the mistake was. We all agree that we need to be better and then we come out and we execute.”

The squad’s special chemistry has helped foster that mindset.

“I have been on four teams here and this is the closest knit group that we have ever had,” said Barnes, a native of nearby Freehold Borough who has now played in 50 games off the bench for the Tigers, totaling 68 points in his career.

“My junior year got cut short; we were really close but this is the most family I have had at Princeton. All of these guys are my best friends and we spend every day together inside of practice and outside of practice. I think that is the biggest difference.”

Henderson is hoping that togetherness can translate into some stingier defensive play by the Tigers going forward.

“We can be great, we know that but it is going to hinge on the defensive end,” said Henderson, whose team will return to action after the exam break by hosting Kean University on December 21.

“Our numbers are consistently good on the offensive end. We have some very specific goals internally defensively that we are not quite meeting. If we can string together stops and have that be in our DNA, we can be special. They know that, we have got to get back to that and I think we can do it.”