November 29, 2023

Sparked by 30-Point Outburst from Sophomore Star Lee, Princeton Men’s Hoops Tops Northeastern, Improves to 6-0

X-FACTOR: Princeton University men’s basketball player Xaivian Lee drives past a Northeastern defender last Saturday as Princeton hosted the Huskies in its home opener. Sophomore guard Lee poured in a career-high 30 points to help the Tigers prevail 80-66. Lee was later named the Ivy League Player of the Week. Princeton, now 6-0, plays at Bucknell on November 29 before hosting Furman on December 2 and Drexel on December 5. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

With the Princeton University men’s basketball team having played its first five games away from Jadwin Gym this season, Xaivian Lee was happy to be back home as the Tigers hosted Northeastern last Saturday afternoon.

“We had a great crowd, it is always good play in front of someone rooting for you,” said Princeton sophomore guard Lee. “Every game has been on the road, so it was nice to be home for sure. Coach (Mitch Henderson) always says the cuts are a little faster. I find our shots go in a little more. It is definitely good to play here.”

Lee’s shots were going in against the Huskies as he posted a career-high 30 points to help the Tigers pull away to an 80-66 win over Northeastern before an enthusiastic Jadwin throng of 2,470 as they improved to 6-0.

Displaying his versatility, Lee struck from the perimeter with three 3-pointers to go along several dazzling sprints to the hoop.

“It is just driving, I feel like I have gotten little stronger so I don’t get pushed off as much when I create more contact and that has helped me finish a little more,” said wiry 6’3, 171-pound Lee, the first Princeton player to tally 30 points in a game since Jaelin Llewellyn scored 30 on March 7, 2020 in an 85-82 loss to Cornell.

“I think the biggest thing that has helped me is buying into the system and not trying to get every bucket by myself. Today, for example, I had a lot of easy cuts which was guys finding me on back cuts and making good reads. I still need to work on having a mid-range game. I took a couple of bad ones down the stretch.”

Senior guard and co-captain Matt Allocco, who tallied 18 points and a game-high six assists, was looking to feed Lee as he caught fire.

“We try not to go isolation ball as much as we can; it is Princeton offense, we cut and we play together,” said Allocco. “But Xaivian can get a tough bucket and he showed that today. He was unbelievable. I have seen it for a couple of years now. I have guarded him in practice and open gyms and he is very difficult to cover. He has made me a ton better.”

While Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson was thrilled by Lee’s performance against the Huskies, he believes his sophomore star is just scratching the surface of what he can accomplish.

“A year ago when Xaivian and I would talk and we were missing each other a little bit, I feel much more connected to him now,” said Henderson of Lee, who was later named the Ivy League Player of the Week and is now averaging a team-high 18.8 points a game. “He has a spirit of improvement and he is not there yet. That was an unbelievable performance but for me it is don’t stop, there is so much more that he can do. He is a really tough cover, but I want him to be awesome defensively too. I think he can impact the game in a lot of ways.”

The Tigers have adjusted their game to take advantage of Lee’s talents to have more impact.

“We are designing and thinking about .what he does really well and working around it all of the time,” said Henderson. “We want him to feel freedom, I think he plays at his best when he is doing that.”

While Princeton didn’t play its best against a gritty Northeastern squad that trailed by just 67-62 with 4:21 left in the second half, Henderson liked the way his players closed the deal.

“I was a little nervous about the game, like coaches can be, just because we were playing so well together on the road,” said Henderson. “The group is so fun to coach, they have been working so hard. We also had very little preparation time. We were off on Thanksgiving Day and we had one day prep. That is a really well coached team. We played very well on offense. Our defense has been great but we were really challenged defensively. They exposed a lot of things we were doing. It was great for us.”

Allocco helped trigger the Tiger offense with several deft passes to teammates cutting to the basket.

“I was just trying to make the right play as always,” said Allocco. “I sure as heck didn’t go in saying I am going to score this many points — it is just about winning. The guys make great reads and great cuts. It is easy for me to put it on them, it is lot easier when guys like Xaivian make shots. It makes me look good.”

While Princeton’s sizzling play this season is drawing attention to the squad in the wake of the team’s magical run to the NCAA Sweet 16 last March, Allocco and his teammates aren’t getting caught up in the hype.

“I think this team has done a great job of just going one day at a time,” said Allocco. “We show up to practice, prepare, and we are focused. On game day, we have just been able to cut it loose. We try our best. We just try and block out the noise a little bit and just focus on getting better every day.”

In assessing his team’s 6-0 start, the best for the program since the 1997-98 season, Henderson is pleased with how the Tigers have been playing at both ends of the court.

“Tonight I thought we got exposed a little bit we will have to get back to the little things but I have been really happy where we are defensively,” said Henderson. “We were top 40 in the country going into the game defensively, which is really good. I think we are very difficult to guard. Teams try a lot of different things, we have designed it that way. We have really good players that work. I would echo what Mush (Allocco) said, this team works, they work very hard. The practices leading up to preseason, it was like a war. It was very competitive, as competitive as it has ever been.”

For Lee, competing on the international stage for Canada this summer in the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) U19 World Cup in Debrecen, Hungary, helped diversify his game.

“Representing your country is a humbling experience but also getting to play so many different types of basketball and styles, all of the countries played a little differently,” said Lee, a native of Toronto, Ontario. “I definitely learned a lot from the European guys like playing with a lot more pace, making good reads, and understanding not to just rely on speed but more like change of pace. I subconsciously picked up on all of that stuff.”