March 8, 2023

Princeton Men’s Basketball Rallies to Edge Penn in OT, Earning Ivy Title, Priming for League Postseason Tourney 

TITLE PUSH: Princeton University men’s basketball player Tosan Evbuomwan pushes past a foe in recent action. Last Saturday, senior star Evbuomwan tallied 15 points with seven rebounds and six assists to help Princeton rally from a 17-point second half deficit to defeat Penn 77-69 in overtime. The win clinched a second straight Ivy League regular season championship for Princeton, which shared this year’s title with Yale. This weekend, the Tigers, now 19-8 overall and 10-4 Ivy, will be hosting the Ivy postseason tournament which will decide the league’s automatic bid to the upcoming NCAA tournament. Princeton is seeded second and will face third-seeded Penn in a semifinal on March 11 with the victor advancing to the final a day later to take in the winner of the Yale-Cornell semi. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

There were smiles and hugs as the Princeton University men’s basketball team held its annual Senior Day celebration last Saturday afternoon before playing Penn.

For Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson, this year’s senior group has carved out a special place in his heart.

“We took a break for a year and all of the guys stayed in school, so I only had three years with them,” said Henderson, whose Class of 2023 includes Tosan Evbuomwan, Konrad Kiszka, Jacob O’Connell, Ryan Langborg, and Keeshawn Kellman.

“From the top down, Tosan through to Konrad, Jacob, Ryan, and Keeshawn, there is humility and grace. Everything that I have asked them to do over the course of their time here they have done it and now they are passing it along to the next group. That is what you want and the only way a program works.”

Evbuomwan, a native of Newcastle, England, savored the pregame ceremony.

“It was amazing to be joined by my family,” said Evboumwan. “It is not the last time I will be on my home court (as Princeton is hosting the Ivy League postseason tournament), but it is super nice to go out in front of the fans and the rest of my team and share the honor.”

With a shot at the Ivy League regular season title on the line in the high noon clash between archrivals, Evbuomwan and his teammates trudged off the court with their heads down as the Tigers trailed the Quakers 42-25 at halftime.

Henderson acknowledged that Penn played superbly in the first 20 minutes of the contest.

“They ran us out of the gym in the first half, they were terrific,” said Henderson, referring to the Quakers who got 21 points from senior star Jordan Dingle in their first half onslaught.

“We talked at halftime that there is a path to this and this is what it looks like. At the 16 minute mark we wanted to be at 12 and at the 12 minute mark we wanted to be at eight. ”

With a Jadwin Gym throng of 3,243 roaring its approval, Princeton found a path to victory, overcoming a 64-55 deficit with 4:54 remaining in the second half, reeling off an 11-2 run to knot the game at 66-66 at the end of regulation and force overtime. Building on that momentum, Princeton pulled away to a 77-69 triumph in the extra session to earn its second straight Ivy regular season crown.

As confetti streamed down on the court after the final horn, the Princeton players were hugging again, holding the Ivy trophy before cutting down with nets.

The Tigers, now 19-8 overall and 10-4 Ivy, shared the title with Yale and will be back at Jadwin this weekend to host the Ivy postseason tournament, which will decide the league’s automatic bid to the upcoming NCAA tournament. Princeton is seeded second and will face third-seeded Penn in a semifinal on March 11 with the victor advancing to the final a day later to take on the winner of the Yale-Cornell semi.

In reflecting on the hard-earned triumph, Henderson credited his senior group with setting the tone.

“This is a really hard championship and we got it done because of the togetherness of the group,” said Henderson, who got 17 points and 10 rebounds in the win from freshman star Caden Pierce with Evbuomwan contributing 15 points, seven rebounds, and six assists. “Caden is playing great and he is a great player, but the ability to do that comes from the seniors, the grace and the allowance to be that way. So first I want thank the seniors, Tosan and his fellow classmates.”

Staying together was critical as the contest turned into a nail-biter in the final minutes of regulation.

“The game gets tight and that is what happens,” said Henderson, whose team ended the second half on an 8-0 run with junior star Matt Allocco draining a jumper in the lane and a layup in the last 1:27 to force overtime. “There is tension that comes into the game when you get into single digits and anything can happen. I kept saying to the guys, ‘Believe, believe. You are there, you are going to get it done.’”

In reflecting on the rally, Evbuomwan never doubted that the Tigers would get it done.

“I am always believing that we are going to win, no matter the score,” said Evbuomwan. “We have been in this position multiple times this year and we have come back to win. It was the same thing with last season. We just have so many guys that make plays. The threes weren’t falling necessarily but Caden was tough on the boards, getting us extra possessions. Guys got to the rim getting fouled, that was a huge part of the game. You never stop believing. We have so much confidence in one another and it paid off today.”

Pierce saw Princeton’s hard work on the boards as changing the tone of the contest.

“We missed 28 threes so there is definitely opportunities for offensive rebounds,” said Pierce. “We knew eventually if we kept shooting, they were going to start to fall. It wasn’t just me, it was other guys getting offensive rebounds and getting us extra possessions. When you get an offensive rebound and kick it out and get a three. It is demoralizing for the other team. We kept trying to fight for every extra possession, every game comes down to two or three possessions.”

Having started for Princeton since game one of his career, Pierce credited the team’s seniors with helping him excel.

“They have been unbelievable for me, that is definitely an understatement,” said the 6’6, 210-pound Pierce who is averaging 8.0 points and a team-high 6.8 rebounds a game. “I can’t thank them enough — they just continually give me confidence. I missed plenty of shots in the first half. Every single one of them was loosening me up, telling me to keep shooting. Like coach was saying, that is the togetherness on the team. It is really special. They really helped us get it done tonight.”

For Evbuomwan, winning the title on Senior Day made for a special memory.

“It means everything, it feels especially good on the home court against Penn,” said Evbuomwan. “We are going to definitely enjoy it. We are definitely looking forward to next weekend and being able to hopefully finish the job.”

In Henderson’s view, the victory meant even more in the wake of a loss to Yale on February 18 which saw Princeton squander a 63-44 second half lead on the way to a 93-83 setback in overtime.

“We lost that exact same game two weeks ago,” said Henderson. “It was awful, awful; it ripped us open. I am sure that is a very difficult loss for Penn. They played much better than us for large parts of the game but that is a hell of a win and a really, really satisfying championship.”

Losing Evbuomwan to graduation will be a huge loss for the program.

“Tosan is just an extraordinary player, literally a once in a generation type of player and is just a joy to coach,” said Henderson of the 6’8, 219-pound Evbuomwan, who is averaging 14.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 4.9 assists a game. “One thing I appreciate about him so much is his humility. He allows me to coach him hard and he takes it in front of his teammates and he just continues to keep improving. He wrote to me before the season, saying that humility, focus, joy, and light heartedness is what he wants his season to be about and that is us. We are imperfect, it is a special group. This is a very satisfying win and championship for this group.”

Evbuomwan believes that Princeton will keep its focus as it looks to win the Ivy tournament on its home court.

“The last stretch of this regular season, every game has been huge and every game has been a championship game,” said Evbuomwan. “That should give us confidence going into the tournament to be able to get it done. That was a championship game today and Harvard (a 58-56 win in February 25) the game before was similar. I think we are going to have great confidence going into the tournament, knowing we have been here. We have played in these type of games and we have been in these big moments. We know how to keep our poise and get it done.”

As he looks forward to his first league tournament, Pierce is determined to keep things simple.

“It is just one game at a time, just one possession at a time and don’t take any plays off,” said Pierce. “Like you saw today, you are never out of it, no matter what the score is. If you get stops and you can string together a couple of scores, the game is never out of hand. It is just keep playing.”

Henderson hopes the Tigers can keep playing well into March.

“It is March; coach [Pete] Carril used to say the best thing is to walk out of Jadwin and it is light out at 7 because we practice at 4:45 and we are still playing,” said Henderson. “We have one more week and a chance to do that in the middle of March. The birds are chirping at 7:30 and it is still light out and you have got to dance.”