February 8, 2023

Austin Helps PU Men’s Basketball Overcome Cornell, Giving Henderson 200th Win on Historic Night for Tigers

GETTING IN RHYTHM: Princeton University men’s basketball player Deven Austin dribbles upcourt last Saturday against Columbia. Freshman guard Austin scored 10 points to help Princeton defeat the Lions 88-66. A night earlier, Austin scored 13 points and had eight rebounds as Princeton rallied to edge Cornell 89-82 and give head coach Mitch Henderson his 200th career victory. Princeton, now 16-6 overall and 7-2 Ivy League, plays at Dartmouth on February 11. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

History was both celebrated and made as the Princeton University men’s basketball team hosted Cornell last Friday night.

Before the contest, which matched teams tied atop the Ivy League standings, Princeton held a ceremony honoring the 25th anniversary of the storied 1996-1998 Tiger teams that posted a 73-13 overall record and a 40-2 league mark.

A large contingent of players and coaches from those squads was on hand and introduced to the cheers of the Jadwin Gym crowd. The last two players recognized were the head coaches facing off in the Ivy showdown, Princeton’s Mitch Henderson ’98 and Cornell’s Brian Earl ’99.

“We were so lucky to be influenced by such great mentors and such great coaches,” said Henderson, noting that former coaches Bill Carmody, John Thomson III, and Howard Levy were all present for the event.

“It is a really rare thing. What you want as a head coach for your team is to experience what we got to experience, which is a really special group of guys with great players and  great people. When you come here, you want to make your mark because there have been so many teams before you that have done so. It was just amazing to see so many people — 25 years is a long time ago.”

That experience has greatly impacted Henderson’s coaching approach.

“There are pieces of Brian, Sydney [Johnson], Steve Goodrich, Bill, Joe [Scott], John and Howie in what I do; almost everything I say is regurgitated from somebody else,” said Henderson, noting that Tiger coach Pete Carril, who passed away this past August, was also a huge influence on his coaching.

“Everything should be cited, and then you have put your own stamp on it. It has never been lost on me, how lucky you get to come here. I felt that today. It was very emotional after those teams walked off the floor. It really hit me hard.”

The clash against Cornell turned into an emotional contest as Princeton found itself trailing 45-35 at halftime before rallying for a hard-earned 89-82 win before a crown of 2,241.

“We were really in trouble, I thought it was a tale of two halves,” said Henderson. “At halftime it was quiet, we were stunned. They really threw everything at us. I thought with 17 minutes left in the game, we started to get deflections, and we started to put it on them a little bit. This group has a lot of toughness.”

That group helped Henderson make some history of his own with the victory marking his 200th career win at Princeton as he became just the third coach in program history to achieve that milestone along with Carril (514) and Franklin (Cappy) Cappon (250).

“Really good players make good coaches and we have had really terrific players and staff,” said Henderson, reflecting on that achievement. “We’re really well prepared and we feel like we have been fortunate to get involved with some really special people and players. I feel like I am the beneficiary of that.”

Princeton has a special player in freshman guard Deven Austin who tallied 13 points and grabbed eight rebounds against Cornell, highlighted by some thunderous dunks.

“It is just stepping up to the challenge and trying to see the challenge that they bring,” said Austin, who stepped up again a night later, scoring 10 points to help Princeton defeat Columbia 88-66 and improve to 16-6 overall and 7-2 Ivy. “The pressure that they apply to us is something that we have faced before. Stepping up in the big moments is something  I have tried to do.”

Over the course of the season, Austin’s diligence has helped him step into a key role for the Tigers.

“It is working, coming in after practice and before practice trying to get extra shots up,” said Austin, a 6’6, 180-pound native of Vernon, Conn., who is now averaging 5.2 points and 2.4 rebounds in 14.8 minutes per game. “The coaching staff just believed in me, I am thankful for that. As the year went on, it is the coaching staff encouraging me and my teammates encouraging me, telling me you are going to be good, you are going to be good. It just brings out the best in me.”

Henderson believes the best is yet to come for the precocious Austin.

“Deven has been working,” said Henderson of Austin, who was later named the Ivy Rookie of the Week. “Deven, in my opinion, can be one of the best defensive players in the league. We want to see that continue to grow. This is a good game to see that.”

Sophomore guard Blake Peters also had a very good game for the Tigers, scoring 16 points in 10 minutes off the bench, hitting on five of seven 3-pointers.

“Really nothing was going through my head; I was watching Top Gun Maverick the other day, and it is “Don’t think, just do,” said Peters, reflecting on his unconscious shooting from the perimeter. “I tried to do that. Cornell kept leaving me and I tried to find the space. I am hearing my teammates on the bench and in the game saying shoot it, shoot it. That gives me a lot of confidence.”

Even though he is coming off the bench, Peters has learned to keep his head in the game.

“You just know your time is coming, I sit on the bench and always try to stay locked in to what they are doing,” says Peters, who has 15 points in 16 minutes of action in an 87-65 loss to Yale on January 28. “I try to see what coverage they are in, that helps me and the others stay locked into the game. You never really know when you are going in. I know what my role is and I am very comfortable with it, so when I go out there I can make shots and big plays.”

Having a weapon like Peters has been a big plus for Henderson.

“Blake was terrific at Yale and here,” said Henderson, who also got 17 points from Tosan Evbuomwan against Cornell with Matt Allocco chipping in 16 points and Caden Pierce contributing 13 points and 10 rebounds. “We have asked a lot of Blake. To get 31 points off the bench in two games; it is really good to get points like that.”

Henderson is hoping the Tigers can stay in a good groove as they play at Dartmouth on February 11.

“We were off from school for so long and I don’t like that for us because you get out of schedule,” said Henderson, whose team is now one game ahead of Yale (16-6 overall, 6-3 Ivy) in the league standings. “It is good to be on a schedule and make sure that your stuff is correct and right. You start to get back into that rhythm. This is the kind of game that you want to see carry over.”