February 14, 2024

Thrilling 1st Sell-Out Crowd at Jadwin Since 2001, Princeton Men’s Hoops Rallies to Defeat Penn 77-70

CROWD PLEASER: Princeton University men’s basketball player Caden Pierce dribbles around a defender in recent action. Last Saturday, sophomore forward Pierce tallied 17 points with 11 rebounds to help Princeton top Penn 77-70 before a sell-out crowd of 5,515 packing Jadwin Gym. The Tigers, now 17-3 overall and 5-2 Ivy League, host Brown on February 16 and Yale on February 17. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

The fans started streaming into Jadwin Gym 90 minutes before Princeton University men’s basketball team tipped off against arch-rival Penn last Saturday evening in the first sell-out in the building since December 12, 2001 when the Tigers hosted Kansas.

In the second half, the throng of 5,515 on hand was uneasy as a gritty Quaker squad led the Tigers 42-36 just after halftime and knotted the contest at 59-59 with 7:59 left in regulation.

Princeton brought the crowd to its feet down the stretch, closing the game on an 18-11 run to pull away to a 77-70 win, improving to 17-3 overall and 5-2 Ivy League.

Tiger sophomore forward Caden Pierce credited the crowd with giving the Tigers a lift as they outlasted the Quakers.

“It was amazing, the media people and everybody on the scene did a great job and promoted the game,” said Pierce. “The fans showed out and it really helped us down the stretch. We feed off that energy, we are really thankful.”

The Tigers needed that energy as Penn was sparked by the return of star guard Clark Slajchert, who hadn’t played since early December due to an ankle injury.

“They are obviously a really good team,” said Pierce, who ended up with 17 points and 11 rebounds in the win for his 10th double-double of the season. “With Slajchert back, they are a completely different team that they have been the past couple games. It is a great team win, they took it to us a little bit there but we stayed together and made plays.”

Pierce kept the Tigers in the game early on as he scored Princeton’s first eight points.

“I felt good warming up, it helps when that first one goes in” said Pierce. “Xaivian [Lee] got me a wide open look on the first play of the game and it went in. I felt good and my teammates kept finding me in good spots.”

Fellow sophomore Lee got plenty of looks in the paint as he slashed his way to 22 points and 10 rebounds.

“I haven’t felt great all week, so I didn’t really get to work out that much and my shot kind of felt terrible,” said Lee. “I thought, just try and get downhill a little bit, get started, and it doesn’t hurt when you make your first couple. So after that my confidence was just up, so I was just attacking, finding others.”

Being more aggressive on the defensive end made the difference for the Tigers as they subdued the Quakers.

“We shut them down on defense, I think that was the best we guarded all game,” said Lee. “They played really well in the first half, they made a lot of shots. We knew if we just kept in front of them, we would make some stops. We had to double down in our scout and just keep guarding.”

Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson credited his players with being sharp at both ends of the court as they pulled out the win.

“We made shots, we got some great shots in the first half,” said Henderson, who got 15 points from Zach Martini with Blake Peters chipping in 12. “I thought we got a little tougher on [Nick] Spinoso and Slajchert towards the end. We didn’t turn the ball over, we had one turnover in the second half. I thought we shot the ball nicely. They were open shots and that is what was called for. If it is 25 feet or two feet, it is an open shot, it is a good shot.”

Henderson acknowledged that Slajchert’s return made Penn much tougher to beat.

“They are very different with him, he didn’t look like he missed a step,” said Henderson. “He was flying around all over the place. He is a really tough kid to cover. I thought Mush (Matt Allocco) did a great job on him. It just took us a little time to get our feet into the game. It was keep moving our feet, we were falling down. That was a really hard-fought game, they tested us big-time.”

Even though Lee is averaging a team-high 18.1 points a game and Pierce is contributing 15.0 points and a team-best 9.5 rebounds a contest, Henderson believes the two sophomores have plenty of room to grow.

“What I appreciate most about them is their willingness to get better and to take coaching; it is a hallmark that we have relied on forever,” said Henderson. “I am grateful that they are willing to listen. They know they are not perfect and that is the beauty of it. No one can change what is inside of each of them because they are both really good players. They are letting mistakes go very quickly which is a really good sign.”

With Princeton having posted two straight wins after falling to Cornell (83-68 on January 27) and Yale (70-64 on February 2), Henderson believes the team is in a good place.

“We were really bad against Cornell, we talked about it and I thought we made huge strides last weekend,” said Henderson. “We had a really tough loss at Yale and then gutted one out at Brown.
This was a really tough one. I still think we have got some more lessons to learn but we are figuring out ways to win and we are not pulling apart which is a good thing.”

As the Tigers host Brown on February 16 and Yale on February 17, Pierce is hoping to draw some more cheers from the home crowd.

“It is good to have them fresh in our minds, we know what we have to do to play each team well,” said Pierce. “We can look at films from just over a week ago when we were at Yale and Brown. That is really going to help us preparing for those games.”