January 12, 2022

Allocco Celebrates Birthday with Buzzer Beater as PU Men’s Hoops Rallies to Stun Cornell 72-70

BIRTHDAY PARTY: Princeton University men’s basketball player Matt Allocco, left, lofts the three-pointer that beat Cornell 72-70 at the buzzer last Saturday evening. At right, his teammates mob Allocco after the shot which came on his 21st birthday as he made his first college start. The Tigers, now 12-3 overall and 2-0 Ivy League, host Brown on January 15 and Penn on January 17. (Photo by Stephen Goldsmith)

By Bill Alden

Trailing Cornell 39-25 at halftime last Saturday, players on the Princeton University men’s basketball team trudged disconsolately across the court to their locker room with head coach Mitch Henderson walking behind shaking his head in frustration.

But about an hour later, the Princeton players were jumping for joy and mobbing Matt Allocco on the court after he drained a long buzzer-beating three-pointer to give the Tigers an improbable 72-70 win after they trailed by 18 points early in the second half.

It was Allocco’s 21st birthday and his first college start as he stepped in the lineup to replace senior star guard and Princeton’s leading scorer Jaelin Llewellyn, who was sidelined after injuring his leg in an 84-69 win over Columbia the day before.

“It felt good coming off, it was straight,” said Allocco, recalling the buzzer-beater.

“I don’t know how to react in those situations. It went in and I just put my arm up. It was a crazy moment. I did a buzzer beater when I was younger maybe but in this situation in conference play, against a really good team, it was really special.”

It was a crazy finish as Princeton trailed 60-51 with 6:30 left in regulation and then went on an 18-9 run to take a 69-68 lead with 23 seconds left in regulation. Cornell got a layup from Dean Noll to go up 70-69 and Princeton took the ball with six seconds remaining, setting up Allocco’s fantastic finish.

“They laid it in and Ryan Langborg had it,” said Allocco, who scored a career-high 14 points in the win as the Tigers improved to 12-3 overall and 2-0 Ivy League.

“He did a good job, he escaped some pressure. He made a nice move between his legs and he found me. I had a little window and I had to lift it.”

Coming into the evening, Allocco was determined to give the Tigers a lift as he moved into the starting lineup.

“It was just doing whatever I can to win the game,” said Allocco a 6’4, 200-pound native of Hilliard, Ohio, who is now averaging 3.1 points and 1.9 rebounds a game.

“I don’t think anyone had to do anything special. We just had to be our best selves and it was enough.”

With Princeton down 47-29 with 15:56 left in regulation, it didn’t look like the Tigers were going to win the game.

“We said there is a lot of time left, we were playing four-minute games,” said Allocco.

“Every media timeout was four minutes, so it was just keep chipping away and we did. We made some big plays, hit some big shots and got stops.”

Switching to a stifling zone defense helped Princeton chip away at the Cornell lead.

“We tried to keep them off balance,” said Allocco. “They can score it, they play really fast, and a lot of guys can make shots. If we could just get them out of their rhythm a little bit, we thought it could help and it did the job.”

In getting the job done, the Tigers utilized focus and togetherness.

“We stay in the moment, we feel that we are never out of it,” said Allocco.

“I would like to start games a little better. We have had a couple in a row like that and we have escaped them. It is a special group. We stay together, we stay in the moment. Things like that happen when you can do that.”

As he reflected on the amazing win, Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson was still stunned by what transpired.

“I told the guys that I have been coaching for 22 years and that has never happened,” said Henderson

“We stole two games this weekend basically. Brian’s [Cornell head coach and former Princeton assistant and star player Brian Earl] team is so good but we got lucky.”

Princeton was lucky to have Allocco to insert into the starting lineup with Llewellyn sidelined.

“Matt Allocco comes in and he makes the game-winning shot,” said Henderson.

“We missed Jaelin a lot. That is a good sign that you can have that kind of production coming into the game. It is his birthday and he makes that shot. It is unbelievable.”

The squad is developing a strong self-belief as the victory over Cornell came one day after the Tigers rallied from a 45-33 halftime deficit against Columbia to roll to an 84-69 win.

“There is a lot of fight with this team,” said Henderson, whose team has now won seven straight games.

“We are always talking in the huddles, we talk about it a lot. We have had a few comeback wins already; it is a fun group.”

Senior forward Drew Friberg and junior forward Tosan Evbuomwan helped lead the fight against the Big Red with Friberg scoring 16 points and grabbing eight rebounds and Evbuomwan contributing 15 points, eight rebounds, and five assists.

“Drew was awesome, he played with such confidence and got us back into the game,” said Henderson.

“He had four threes. Tosan took over. He is a special player and we need him to assert himself all the time.”

With attendance at Jadwin Gym limited to Princeton staff, faculty, and students, it was a surreal atmosphere for the contest.

“It is really strange, everything is really different,” said Henderson, whose team was supported by a small but raucous group of Tiger athletes on hand who were stamping their feet and banging seats down the stretch as the Tigers rallied.

“It is just a different rhythm to the game. Everybody can hear everything and everything seems so personal.”

Allocco knows the Tigers face a difficult road ahead as they get into the thick of their Ivy campaign which resumes when Princeton hosts Brown on January 15 and Penn on January 17.

“Coach has been saying it is going to come down to a few possessions,” said Allocco.

“It is just staying in the moment and going one possession at a time, celebrate when things are going right and stay together when it is not.”

Last Saturday, Allocco enjoyed a birthday celebration that he will never forget.