March 22, 2023

Producing Stunning NCAA Run, PU Men’s Hoops Makes Sweet 16

HOW SWEET IT IS: Princeton University men’s basketball star Matt Allocco jumps for joy in the waning moments of 15th-seeded Princeton’s 59-55 upset of second-seeded Arizona last Thursday in their NCAA tournament South Region first-round game in Sacramento, Calif. The Tigers went on to defeat seventh-seeded Missouri 78-63 on Saturday to advance to the Sweet 16. Princeton will face sixth-seeded Creighton (23-12) in a round of 16 contest on March 24 in Louisville, Ky. (Photo provided by Princeton Athletics)

By Justin Feil

The Princeton University men’s basketball team is still dancing after winning two straight games to start the NCAA tournament.

That hasn’t happened since Tiger fans were dancing in 1965 to the No. 1 song “My Girl,” by the Temptations.

“I feel like these guys; it’s unbelievable,” said Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson, reflecting on his squad’s stunning run.

Princeton won a pair of games in different fashion to reach the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament. The 15th-seeded Tigers relied on a determined defensive effort to rally late past second-seeded Arizona for a 59-55 victory in their South Region first-round game last Thursday in Sacramento, Calif.

Two days later, Princeton enjoyed one of their better shooting performances, going 27-of-62 from the floor with 12 three-pointers, and led wire-to-wire for a 78-63 win over seventh-seeded Missouri in a second-round game. It was the largest margin of victory ever for a No. 15 seed in the Big Dance.

“This is a very, very confident group,” said Henderson after improving to 23-8. “We are so thrilled to be going to the Sweet 16. It is an absolute pleasure being around these guys. They just grit their teeth and they do it.”

The Tigers won a second-round game in the NCAAs for the first time since 1965, when the tournament was only a 23-team event. That team reached the Final Four and finished third.

Princeton, the only double-digit seed remaining in the tourney, will play sixth-seeded Creighton, an 85-76 upset winner over third-seeded Baylor, in the Round of 16 on March 24 in Louisville, Ky. The winner faces the victor of the game between top-seeded Alabama and fifth-seeded San Diego State in the regional final on March 26 for the chance to reach the Final Four.

“It’s been a few years in the making,” said Princeton senior Tosan Evbuomwan, who had nine points, nine rebounds, and five assists against Missouri. “We just have such a close group. We love to work with each other. We love to push each other. It’s showing. Just a group of really tough guys. It’s all coming together at the right time I think.”

Henderson was a part of the last Tigers team to get to the second round. Princeton topped UNLV in the first round in 1998, but fell 63-56 to Michigan State in the second round in Henderson’s final year playing for Princeton. Now 25 years later, he has the Tigers poised for more history.

“I’ve always dreamed of playing deep into the tournament,” said Henderson. “As a player, I got to the second round a couple times. Never got beyond it.”

Princeton’s run started with a spirited comeback against an Arizona team that had size and quite a pedigree. The Wildcats had lost only six times coming into the game, and no non-conference team had been able to solve them all year. Each half had a similar formula with Princeton closing each on a good run.

In the first half against Arizona, Princeton fell behind by as much as nine points with four minutes left in the half before an 8-0 run left the Tigers down one point at halftime on Evbuomwan’s dunk.

In the second half, Arizona built a 12-point lead. It was still a 10-point deficit for the Tigers with eight minutes remaining before Princeton — with all of its timeouts used after Caden Pierce used one diving on the floor for a loose ball, and without the benefit of its usual good shooting — clawed back to finish the game on an 18-4 run.

“We have a lot of heart in our program,” said Pierce, the Ivy League Rookie of the Year. “When things weren’t going our way, we were down 10 with eight or so minutes to go, we always were believing, we always kept saying we’re going to win the game.”

Ryan Langborg’s shot with 2:03 left put the Tigers ahead, 56-54. Barely a minute later, Langborg came up with a huge block on a shot that would have given Arizona the lead back. Pierce made a pair of free throws and Arizona missed two 3-pointers that could have tied it. Evbuomwan made one free throw for the final margin to make a statement about what makes this
Tigers team special.

“I think a team that never gives up, a team that always fights for one another, and a really selfless team,” said Evbuomwan. “A great team really. I think we showed it obviously today. Mush (junior guard Matt Allocco) and coach said it, we think of ourselves as a great team. When we are playing our best, we think we can take down everybody. A great program, a selfless one, that plays our brand of basketball.”

Evbuomwan led the scoring with 15 points while sophomore guard Blake Peters came off the bench for three 3-pointers. Another reserve, junior Zach Martini, made the only other 3-pointer as the Tigers overcame a 4-for-25 performance from distance by relying on other parts of the game plan. They had 11 turnovers, more than they would have liked, but only gave Arizona eight fast-break points. That forced the Wildcats to play a pace familiar to old school Princeton fans made famous by former coach Pete Carril, who passed away last August. Henderson took a page out of his mentor’s playbook.

“We have full confidence in his game plan and the coaching staff’s game plan,” said Evbuomwan. “That’s what we set out to do. Low turnovers. You have to take care of the ball against a team like that, limit their transition buckets. Obviously play physical inside with the bigs. Exactly what coach said was our plan. We turned the ball over a couple more times, but other aspects of our defense meant we were able to get it done.”

Their defense remained stout two days later against Missouri, a team that had defeated common opponent Penn 92-85 early in the regular season. Princeton took the drama out of the second-round game by shooting better, finding each other for open looks, rebounding, and defending.

“Thursday obviously did give us confidence,” said Evbuomwan. “It was nice to be able to ride momentum into this game. But like you said, it’s about remaining focused on the next thing. The world looks at us as two upsets. But I feel like we’re supposed to be here. We have a lot of confidence in one another, what we’re doing. There’s definitely no letup with this group.”

The improved shooting helped the offense click more against Missouri. Langborg scored 11 of Princeton’s first 13 points. He finished with 22 points to lead the Tigers from New Jersey (Missouri is also nicknamed the Tigers).

“Shots weren’t going in for any of us really the last game,” said Langborg. “To see the ball go through the net, it’s always a great start to the game.”

Princeton opened up a 14-point lead with three minutes left in the first half. Missouri trimmed it to 33-26 by halftime. In a striking contrast to their first-round game, this time Princeton held a 17-point lead at the eight-minute mark in the second half. The lead ballooned to 21 points and Missouri came no closer than 14 points the rest of the way.

Henderson attributed the defense that held Missouri at bay to the style they had to rely on down the Ivy regular season stretch and through two games to win the Ivy Madness tournament for the automatic bid to the NCAAs.

“Our league also — it’s so hard to guard in our league,” said Henderson. “We’ve seen a little bit of everything — we saw the last two games in our league regularly. I know you guys say, ‘It’s Arizona and Missouri.’ For us, it’s the same actions, just different players. You got to keep your body in front of them and contest shots. I mean, it’s a really hard, tough-nosed group. They know how to do it.”

Princeton had contributions up and down the lineup against Missouri with scoring and rebounding. Allocco had 10 points and seven assists. Peters, whose grandparents graduated from Missouri, knocked down five 3-pointers to finish with 17 points.

“They’re very passionate Tiger fans,” said Peters. “But I know they were cheering for their grandson today. That’s what makes things like this so special, is to do it in front of your family here, watching back at home. I hope they’re proud of me.”

Pierce scored nine points and had a season-high 16 rebounds. Princeton outrebounded Missouri, 44-30, though the No. 7 seed was ranked in the top 10 nationally in rebounding. It was a follow-up to battling Arizona to a 38-37 rebounding edge on Thursday.

“We’ve got terrific players,” said Henderson. “Cade Pierce, 16 rebounds. He’s a freshman. I mean, Zach Martini, Tosan. We’ve made it a huge priority. Keeshawn (Kellman). They’re playing absolutely fearless. They’re unafraid of anyone.”

The win over Missouri came exactly one month after a season-changing 93-83 overtime loss to Yale on February 18. The Tigers turned the page since surrendering a 19-point lead and have now won six straight games when they have mattered most.

“The Yale loss specifically was a massive turning point for us,” said Evbuomwan. “We were able to refocus the day after at practice, going forward with games. All those games were big games. That kind of gives us confidence going into each game here. The Ivy championship, as well. We’ve been here before, we’ve played on — obviously this is the biggest stage we’ve played on — a big stage, being able to get it done. We have confidence in one another to show out and have a big performance.”

The Tigers will play for more history Friday against Creighton. Princeton lost to the Bluejays in their only previous meeting. That came a long time ago in 1961, and the Tigers are determined to keep on dancing together.

Henderson, for his part, knows that the Tigers face a big challenge in the Bluejays (23-12).

“You are talking about big guys, they have that kid [Ryan] Kalkbrenner, who is an unbelievably talented big man inside,” said Henderson of the 7’1 Kalkbrenner, who is averaging 15.7 points and 6.2 rebounds a game. “Ryan Nembhard was unbelievable in the game last night. We are still learning about them. They were predicted to win the Big East by a mile going into the season and they have been very good. They are terrific and really well coached.”

Langborg is confident that the Tigers are ready for another big NCAA effort.

“I got to watch them play last night, we haven’t gone too much into the scout,” said Langborg. “From what it looks like, I think it will be a great matchup, a great game. We are excited to get after it. The job is not done, we have some games left hopefully.”

But no matter how long Princeton’s run goes, Evbuomwan is excited by the great things the Tigers have done to get to this point.

“I can’t really put the feeling into words right now, to be honest,” said Evbuomwan. “It’s just an unreal feeling to do this with my guys and my teammates and coaching staff.”