January 25, 2023

PU Men’s Hoops Rallies to Top Dartmouth in OT Thriller as Pierce, Kellman Make Clutch Plays in Key Moments

PIERCE COMPETITOR: Princeton University men’s basketball player Caden Pierce, right, looks to get around Dartmouth’s Dusan Nescovic last Saturday afternoon at Jadwin Gym. Freshman forward Pierce posted a double-double with 17 points and 13 rebounds in the contest to help Princeton rally for a 93-90 overtime win against the Big Green. The Tigers, now 14-5 overall and 5-1 Ivy League, moved into first place in the league standings with the victory and will look to stay ahead of the pack as they play at Yale on January 28. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Hosting Dartmouth last Saturday afternoon, the Princeton University men’s basketball team found itself in a desperate situation, trailing the Big Green 76-72 with 1:10 left in regulation.

But with Jadwin Gym in an uproar, Princeton freshman forward Caden Pierce’s thoughts turned to a message hammered home by Tiger head coach Mitch Henderson.

“Coach always says, no matter what the score is, we are always winning the game so I felt like that is what we needed to do,” said Pierce.

Taking those words to heart, Pierce made a steal, flung the ball to Tosan Evbuomwan who set up a three-pointer by Matt Allocco.

“I needed to step up and make a play down the stretch to help the team win,” said Pierce.

Pierce’s clutch play set the tone as Princeton knotted the game at 76-76 to force overtime and then pulled out a 93-90 win as it improved to 14-5 overall and 5-1 Ivy League.

Henderson acknowledged that his squad lucked out in snatching the win.

“I have always said in this league and I said to Dave (Dartmouth head coach Dave McLaughlin) after the game, you have to steal a couple of games if you are going to have a good season,” said Henderson. “We totally stole that. They were the better team throughout large parts of the game. We did some things that kept us in the game. We made free throws, we made 16 in a row at one point. We were able to get our hands on some stuff to get us back in the game at the end. We were really fortunate, that is a really good win and that is a really good team.”

The clutch play of Pierce helped fortune smile on Princeton.

“He is good already at the things that take you a long time to learn how to do,” said Henderson of Pierce, who ended up with 17 points and 13 rebounds in the win and has started all 19 games this season for the Tigers. “We want him to try the things that are a little harder to do and more fun to do. I think tonight he did; he put the ball on the floor and scored around the basket in really nice ways. It is hard to have him out of the game, he can guard bigs, he can guard smalls, he gets rebounds, and he plays to win.”

Pierce, for his part, is developing a comfort level as he has gone through his freshman campaign.

“Each and every game I am trying different things out, seeing what is working, what’s not,” said Pierce, a 6’6, 210-pound native of Glen Ellyn, Ill., who is averaging 7.6 points and a team-high 6.4 rebounds a game. “I am building more confidence each and every game. I think my teammates just continue to trust me. If I do pass one three-pointer up, they let me hear it, like shoot the next one and never stop shooting. We drill lots of shots in practice. We take so many shots and we make so many shots so it is a part of our team and a part of our culture.”

Senior Keeshawn Kellman made some big shots against Dartmouth, scoring 18 points after totaling just four points in Princeton’s three previous games.

“I don’t really care about my individual stats, it is whatever I can do to help the team,” said Kellman, a 6’9, 240-pound native of Allentown, Pa., who scored six points in overtime. “If it means that I am not scoring, I can just help the team in other ways. At the day I am just trying to win, today things were just starting to open up a little bit.”

Things got hectic as the Tigers made their furious rally in the waning moments of regulation.

“It was a crazy end, there was a lot of energy all around,” said Kellman. “There were a bunch of turnovers and foul calls that could have gone either way. It was just keep playing hard and build some momentum going into overtime.”

Henderson credited Kellman with giving the Tigers momentum through his inside scoring.

“That is the beauty of the league,” said Henderson. “That is what they were allowing him to do. It takes a massive amount of pressure off of everyone  else and what they have to do because you are getting layups right at the basket.”

While the win moved Princeton into first place in the league standings, Henderson knows there is little margin for error.

“It feels to me like the closest and tightest knit group of teams I have ever seen,” said Henderson. “We have had like five or six possessions in the league that got us a win. I have been on the other side of it too. There is a togetherness that might get you there but you need to make those plays. We were lucky tonight to make them.”

With Princeton playing at Yale on January 28, it will need to keep making plays to stay ahead of the pack.

“We went up to Brown and I am not sure we were quite ready for that game and we took a loss,” said Henderson, referring to a 72-70 setback on January 14. “Tonight could have been the same thing. Going to Yale, we know that is a tough place to play and then it is Cornell (on February 3). I hope to goodness that I don’t have to remind these guys how difficult and how important the games are.”

In Kellman’s view, the resilience the Tigers displayed in pulling out the win over Dartmouth will make them difficult to beat.

“It just speaks to our toughness,” said Kellman. “We get after it every day in practice and film. It gives us a great amount of detail and it translates to the court. In tough moments, that is where our discipline comes in.”