March 15, 2023

Overcoming Nemesis Yale in Ivy Madness Final, PU Men’s Hoops Makes NCAAs, Will Face Arizona

FLYING HIGH: Princeton University men’s basketball player Tosan Evbuomwan flies to the hoop last Saturday as Princeton defeated Penn 77-70 in the Ivy Madness postseason tournament semis. A day later, senior star Evbuomwan tallied 21 points with five rebounds and four assists to help the Tigers defeat Yale 74-65 in the final. Princeton, now 21-8, is seeded 15th in the NCAA tourney and will face second-seeded Arizona in a first round contest on March 16 in Sacramento, Calif. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

The third time proved to be the charm for the Princeton University men’s basketball team as it hosted nemesis Yale in the final of the Ivy Madness postseason tournament last Sunday.

After having lost 87-65 at Yale on January 28 and then suffering a brutal 93-83 overtime defeat to the Bulldogs in mid-February which saw Princeton squander a 63-44 second half lead, the Tigers turned the tables on their rival when it mattered most.

Jumping out to a 12-0 lead before a raucous throng of 3,607 at Jadwin Gym, the Tigers rode a stingy defense and an efficient offense to win 74-65 to earn the Ivy tournament crown and clinch their first NCAA bid since 2017.

Princeton, now 21-8, is seeded 15th in the NCAA tourney and will face second-seeded Pac-12 powerhouse Arizona (28-6) in a first round contest on March 16 in Sacramento, Calif.

“We weren’t the best group all season, we started off rough; we got better and better as the season went on, starting with the loss to Yale here three weeks ago that really opened us up in a really brutal way,” said Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson, whose team edged Penn 77-70 in the Ivy semis on Saturday to set up the clash with the Bulldogs.

“We won at Harvard after we coughed up a big lead. We figured out a way to come back from down 18 against Penn and clinch the title. I thought we played really well this weekend.”

In the view of Tiger senior star Tosan Evbuomwan, starting with the 12-0 run was critical for Princeton as it looked to get over the hump against Yale, who defeated the Tigers in the final of last year’s Ivy tournament.

“It was nice, we huddle up before the game when we go on the court and we were like ‘let’s get off to a good start here, let’s string together stops and get good shots,’” said Evbuomwan. “We executed the whole game, but it really started in the first four minutes of the game. We got ourselves off to a great start and that set the tone for the game.”

Henderson pointed to a buzzer-beating three-pointer by freshman star Caden Pierce at the end of the first half to put Princeton up 33-29 as a game-changing moment.

“It was a big shot by Caden, we had nice momentum going into halftime,” said Henderson. “They had the ball to start the second half. I thought in the second half, we really tightened up on the defensive end. It can get chippy, winning the league is so hard. The coaching is so good. The kids are usually really locked in on what they need to do, especially this year. Yale is very good.”

The play of the 6’8, 219-pound Evbuomwan, who tallied 21 points with five rebounds and four assists in the final and was named All-Tournament and the event’s Most Outstanding Player, made things hard for the Bulldogs.

“This has been a challenge with Tosan for three years to get him to impose his physical will on the game,” said Henderson. “I thought we took strength from that this weekend and him imposing himself. We will never have anyone around here who is a good a passer as him for a long time at his size. He is a very difficult kid to cover.”

In addition to his stellar offense, Evbuomwan imposed his will at the defensive end on Yale star John Poulakidas, who torched Princeton for 19 points in the January contest and 30 points in the OT win. With Evbuomwan dogging Poulakidas all over the court, he was held to seven points on 2-of-7 shooting.

“We all locked in on him as a team, I think it is just team defense really and that is what it has been all season,” said Evbuomwan, reflecting on the defensive effort. “It is never one guy’s job — guys are always in there helping one another. We do a great job of that and supporting each other. It gave me confidence to press up and take some of his shots away.”

Suffering a heartbreaking 66-64 loss to Yale in last year’s Ivy Madness gave the Tigers extra motivation coming into Sunday.

“You really don’t stop thinking about that, losing in the final and being so close and having it taken away from you,” said Evbuomwan. “That is what you try to lock in on every year throughout the year and in tough times whatever it may be. It is what you think about and having a chance to do this is unreal.”

Tiger junior guard Matt Allocco credited Evbuomwan with helping to keep Princeton locked in.

“It was pretty inspiring, everyone knows that Tosan is pretty special offensively,” said Allocco. “Today in particular, I thought he was unbelievable. When he plays like that, he is the best player in the league on both ends. He was terrific today and just willed us and carried us.”

Getting physical helped carry the Tigers to victory as they outrebounded Yale 36-31 and took some charges at key points of the contest.

“It was not just today but we try to be every game,” said Allocco, who ended up with 15 points and seven rebounds in the victory. 

“If you are the more physical team and you control the boards I think you have a great shot to beat anybody, but physically they are really tough. Yale is a good team and they have been in this
position before. We knew it was going to take everything that we had. It was an unbelievable game and I thought we did a great job of playing tough, staying in the moment, rebounding, and just making winning plays.”

Henderson credited the precocious Pierce with making winning plays to go along with Evbuomwan and Allocco.

“We are so lucky, he is a Big 10, Big 12 high major player in every sense of the word,” said Henderson of Pierce, who had 12 points and 10 rebounds against Yale and was an All-Tournament selection.

“From the minute he stepped on campus, he was good at the things that are so hard for freshman. He is tough and physical. It helps that one of his brothers is a receiver for the Colts and another one has played basketball professionally. There is something in the air in that family. We really needed that spot badly this year, we have had some injuries and some issues on the team where we just lost guys. He stepped up in a big way.”

The influence of legendary Princeton coach Peter Carril, who passed away this past August, helped Henderson guide his charges to the title.

“I thought about him a lot, we were wearing the bowtie patch this year,” said Henderson. “He likes to see teams improve and get better. So much of what I say is him regurgitated; it should be asterisked to coach Carril. A lot of this is honoring him. There is a through line to him and we have that picture of him up in the rafters. He would be very proud.”

Henderson is proud of the growth he saw in his team this winter.

“I think your record is important but the coolest thing about coaching is these kids and to watch them grow,” said Henderson. “It is not just me, it is them, they have lost to Yale too. We have done it together and then we beat them today together. Even if we had lost today, I would be so proud of them and I told them so but sometimes it goes your way. That is a really good team we beat, they have been on top of the league for a long time. Now it is our turn to represent the league in the tournament.”

For Henderson, a former Tiger standout who helped Princeton make three NCAA tournaments from 1996-98, returning to March Madness is the best way to end the season.

“I say often that we put all of our chips into winning the league but we really want to go to the NCAAs,” said Henderson. “That is what we want, that is what the school wants, that is what
everybody wants in the program. It is the best thing to do, it is one of the coolest things in sports. A lot of people who were here today have played in that tournament and are used to watching us play in that tournament. I think about it a lot and I am proud of the guys to give us a chance to be there. We want to represent with a good group of guys on a national level. We are really excited to be doing this, there is nothing better.”

Evbuomwan, a native of Newcastle, England, is excited to be ending his Tiger journey with the trip from Jadwin to the NCAAs.

“Coming here, you are always playing for something bigger than yourself,” said Evbuomwan. “This place does so much for each of us individually so being able to give back in any way and put up another banner as a group is just an amazing feeling. Being able to do that on our home court is even better.”

Allocco, for his part, vows that the Tigers will give their all in the program’s 26th appearance in the national tourney.

“It is a tremendous accomplishment but there is still basketball to be played which is the beauty of it,” said Allocco. “We are not done yet. We are happy to be in this position, but I don’t think we are satisfied. Whoever we get matched up against, I am expecting it to be a great game and we are going to compete.”