March 20, 2024

After Getting Stunned by Brown in Ivy Madness Semis, PU Men’s Hoops Aims to Rebound as it Hosts UNLV in NIT

BEARING DOWN: Princeton University men’s basketball player Dalen Davis dribbles upcourt in recent action. Last Saturday, freshman guard Davis scored a team-high 21 points in a losing cause as top-seeded Princeton fell 90-81 to fourth-seeded Brown in the semifinals of the Ivy Madness postseason tournament at Columbia. The Tigers, who dropped to 24-4 with the loss to the Bears, will be competing in the National Invitation Tournament where they will host UNLV in a first round contest on March 20. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Mitch Henderson has fond memories of the last time that he played UNLV.

The Princeton University men’s basketball head coach is hoping his Tigers can make good memories against the Runnin’ Rebels when they host them in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) this Wednesday night, March 20, at Jadwin Gym.

“It’s a testament to the seniors that the country and committee recognized the value and excellence of what they’ve done to give us a home game,” said Henderson. “We absolutely love being able to compete again together. We had our moment of feeling a little down, but we’re beyond that and we get to host a game on Wednesday against a good UNLV team. We’re absolutely thrilled.”

The Tigers had hoped to be playing in the NCAA tournament, but a 90-81 upset loss to fourth-seeded Brown in the Ivy Madness postseason tournament on Saturday at host Columbia ended their chance at an automatic bid to the NCAAs. Princeton did not receive an at-large bid to the NCAAs despite an RPI (rating percentage index) of 24, but the chance to play in the NIT as a No. 2 seed at home is a silver lining.

“You say goodbye to your home court on your last home game, that’s it,” said Henderson. “We anticipated being in the NCAAs, but what a cool thing for our seniors and our fans and our program. We’re really thrilled to still be competing, and getting a chance to do that at Jadwin in front of our own fans is special.”

The winner of Wednesday’s game meets the winner of Providence and Boston College in the second round on March 23-24. The semis are set for April 2, with the final slate for April 4 in Hinkle Fieldhouse at Butler University in Indianapolis, Ind. ESPN analyst Tom Crean, a former Division I coach, on air picked the Tigers to win it all there.

“It’s great,” said Henderson. “That’s a testament to the guys and their body of work over time. I love it and I love that a former coach is recognizing what these guys have done. It means a lot.”

Princeton will take on a UNLV team, now 19-12 overall, that finished fourth in the Mountain West Conference. They have five players that average double digits in scoring led by Dedan Thomas Jr.’s 14.1 points per game. The Runnin’ Rebels beat NCAA tournament teams Stetson, Creighton, New Mexico, San Diego State, and Akron, and lost to another, Saint Mary’s, in overtime.

“They have really athletic, long defenders and players,” said Henderson. “They have really good players. They play in a really tough Mountain West Conference with some NCAA tournament caliber teams. What also stands out is we don’t know each other very well yet. And what’s kind of the fun here is we’re going to be a little behind on some of the things they do, and probably the same for us with them. So that’s fun.”

Henderson was a senior on the 1998 team that topped UNLV 69-57 at the Hartford Civic Center in Hartford, Conn., in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Tigers were higher seed in that game as well.

“I remember that game really well,” said Henderson. “We were a 5 seed. I think they had won the Mountain West Conference tournament to get an automatic qualifying bid. We got up by seven-eight points in the first half. I remember they were a really talented team and it was fun to play them. We also played them I think when Kit Mueller was the center and they had those great UNLV teams in maybe’90 or ’91. That was a good team and those UNLV teams were terrific. There’s some history to the game which is fun.”

Last Saturday at Columbia’s Levien Gym, the Tigers became the first top seed to lose in the semifinals of the Ivy tournament when the Bears won their seventh straight game before falling to second-seeded Yale in the Ivy title game Sunday. Princeton was plagued early by miscues and finished with 11 turnovers, while Brown shot the ball well all game.

“We turned the ball over early which was dangerous,” said Henderson. “We played the hottest team in the league on a neutral court. They were really on fire.”

Princeton fell behind, 44-31, at halftime. The deficit swelled to 22 points only three minutes into the second half before the Tigers mounted a comeback behind reserve Dalen Davis. The freshman guard scored all of his team-high 21 points in the second half as Princeton whittled away at Brown’s lead.

“He was great,” said Henderson. “He was awesome. He was a real bright spot. I’m happy for him. He saved us. He put us on his back as a freshman. He looked like a senior.”

Princeton went to a full-court press effectively over the final half of the game and it paid off. They made it difficult for Brown to get the ball inbounds even, and they preyed on missed free throws by the Bears to give themselves a chance late. Princeton could only second-guess if they might have pulled it out had they gone to the press sooner.

“I thought we could gather ourselves in the second half, and we cut it to 18 quickly and then it was 22,” said Henderson. “We’ve not been down like that, and we got beat up pretty good at Cornell but we played 28 games and we’ve had great fight and togetherness. Tonight, we were a step off at all spots. Maybe that’s my fault.”

With 2:00 left, Princeton trailed 81-74 when they got a steal and Blake Peters and Davis missed 3-pointers that could have made it a four-point game with still 1:37 to go. They still looked in decent shape when Matt Allocco’s 3-pointer with 45 seconds left in regulation brought Princeton to within 84-81, but Brown’s Kino Lilly, who led all scorers with 27 points, made two free throws and the Tigers got no closer.

“It’s a neutral court against the hottest team in the league,” said Henderson. “We went down. We have a hell of a team. I’m so proud of them. I hope this doesn’t take away from them. It’s very, very difficult. We’ve had a great run with this group of seniors.”

Allocco finished with 20 points while Ivy League Player of the Year Caden Pierce had 19 points as Princeton dropped to 24-4 on the season.

The painful aftermath and knowing that the Tigers would not have a chance to duplicate last year’s NCAA run to the Sweet 16 made the loss sting harder, particularly for Allocco and Zach Martini, who were facing their final games.

“I said to Zach and Mush (Allocco), I’ve never been more proud of two seniors that epitomize Princeton basketball, everything that we care about and stand for, the daily work ethic,” said Henderson. “I hope that they can get over this and realize the legacy and impact that they’ve made for us. This is really, really difficult for us.”

The NIT bid gives the Tigers new life and the chance to go for another championship. Princeton looks to get back on track and extend its season with a win on Wednesday.

“We’ve done such a good job of taking care of the ball on the season,” said Henderson. “That’ll be No. 1 just because they’re so fast and athletic. And then playing our game, be us. This is what got us here and we want to make sure we’re the best version of us.”