March 29, 2023

Tiger Men’s Hoops Ousted in NCAA Sweet 16, But Magical Run Leaving Indelible Memories

END OF THE RUN: Princeton University men’s basketball player Tosan Evbuomwan drives to the hoop in recent action. Last Friday, senior standout Evbuomwan tallied 24 points in a losing cause as 15th-seeded Princeton fell 86-75 to sixth-seeded Creighton in the NCAA Sweet 16 at the South Regional in Louisville, Ky. The defeat left the Tigers with a final record of 23-9 and ended a magical run which saw the Tigers advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since the tournament was expanded to 64 teams in 1985. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Last Friday night, the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky., was transformed into Jadwin Gym south as the 15th-seeded Princeton University men’s basketball team faced sixth-seeded Creighton in the NCAA Sweet 16 at the South regional.

The arena was a sea of orange and the Princeton fans were in full roar, serenading their squad with chants of “let’s go Tigers” as tip-off approached.

In the first half, Princeton gave its fans plenty to cheer about as it built a 38-35 lead with 4:28 to go before halftime.

“We thought we played excellent on offense, three turnovers,” said Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson. “We were playing well.”

But after the Bluejays edged ahead 47-43 at intermission Henderson saw trouble on the horizon.

“We were really concerned at halftime about their transition baskets,” said Henderson. “In that last couple of minutes of the first half, it was very difficult to figure out how to get stops; they were just right top of us.”

Trailing 68-52 with 12:19 left in regulation, the Tigers cut the margin to 76-69 at the 3:38 mark but could get no closer as they lost 86-75 to finish the season at 23-9 before a crowd of 20,289.

As the Princeton players filed off the court, they got one more show of support when the sea of orange rose to give the Tigers a final standing ovation.

“It was too many quick possessions,” said Henderson, reflecting on the loss which ended a magical run that saw the Tigers upset second-seeded Arizona and seventh-seeded Missouri as they advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since the tournament was expanded to 64 teams in 1985. “I mean, we had five turnovers on the game. We got 10 more shots than they did. We just couldn’t stop them.”

Henderson acknowledged that Creighton’s 7’1 star center Ryan Kalkbrenner was hard to stop as he tallied 22 points with five rebounds against the Tigers.

“We had seen great size and length against Arizona, but we haven’t seen Kalkbrenner’s agility and the speed, the way they’re getting him the ball in different positions,” said Henderson, whose team was outrebounded 37-26 in the defeat. “I had said we want him to be 10 for 20, not 18 for 20, and he was 9 for 12. I thought he was the key. They just got easy baskets when they needed them.”

Tiger senior guard Ryan Langborg appreciated the great support that Princeton got in Louisville from its throng of fans.

“We wouldn’t be here without the fans, without the alums, everybody that’s come to support us,” said Langborg, who tallied a game-high and career-high 26 points in his Princeton finale. “Man, I mean, every time we hit a couple of shots, they’re going nuts, and it gives us all the confidence in the world. I’m very thankful for everyone who is supporting us.”

Henderson, a former Tiger standout who helped Princeton win two NCAA games in his playing career in 1996 and 1998 and is the first person to both play and coach in March Madness victories for the program, was also grateful for that backing.

“That means everything; we told everybody, wait until you see,” said Henderson, referring to the team’s fan support. “We talked to our fans in the hotel before we came over and did a lot of interviews this week on TV — we never got worked up or nervous. I was so fired up before coming over here. It was the coolest thing. You know, this group right here, we love our school and feel really good about the school, but we felt the love.”

In Henderson’s view, his squad earned that love. “It’s such a year of joy for our program,” said Henderson. “These guys have done something that no one has ever done, and I know that there’s some really great Princeton teams in the past, but this is a really, really special team. It’s such an honor to be around them on a day-to-day basis.”

Tiger senior star Tosan Evbuomwan believes that Princeton showed the nation over the last two weeks that it is a special team.

“I’m hopeful that they watched those games and, you know, saw the great team that we are and the great talents that we have,” said Evbuomwan, who scored 24 points against the Bluejays. “We have very talented guys, and we really gel well together as a group. It’s our style of play, selfless basketball. I’m just so proud of my team.”

Henderson credited Evbuomwan and his classmates with setting the tone for the postseason run.

“We’ve talked a lot about Tosan, but, you know, these guys were just terrific,” said Henderson. “And the fight comes from within, and when the seniors are tough, when the seniors fight, it trickles down to the whole group.”

While the loss to Creighton stung, that isn’t going be what Henderson dwells on when he looks back on this March.

“We fought all the way to the end, but came up short,” added Henderson. “That does not define us one bit. This is a very special group, and I love them, love being their coach.”

Evbuomwan, for his part, loved what the Tigers accomplished on its magical run, believing that the experience will resonate for years to come.

“We created great memories with one another, and I think that’s what it’s all about,” said Evbuomwan. “You know, being able to look back and be proud of something which you’ve done together as a unit. Our bond was great. We’re going to have an even greater bond, and it’s going to be special. I’m sure it will last all of our lifetimes, everybody on the team, top to bottom.”