March 27, 2024

Tiger Men’s Hoops Falls to UNLV in NIT Opener, but Tigers Proud of Achievements in 24-5 Season

ROUGH NIGHT WITH VEGAS: Princeton University men’s basketball player Matt Allocco looks to get around a UNLV (University of Nevada, Las Vegas) defender last Wednesday as Princeton hosted the Runnin’ Rebels in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament. Senior guard Allocco scored nine points but it wasn’t enough as the Tigers fell 84-77 to UNLV to end the winter with a 24-5 record. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

The Princeton University men’s basketball team’s hopes for another memorable postseason run ended last Wednesday night.

The Tigers, who reached the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament last year, suffered an 84-77 loss to UNLV (University of Nevada, Las Vegas) in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament at Jadwin Gym.

“We were punching above our weight all season,” said Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson as he reflected on the setback. “We showed up tonight. I mean we’ve been a little banged up and had some stuff going. We just lost some juice here at the end, but that doesn’t take away from what this group is and does.”

Along with the end of the season came the conclusion of the Princeton careers of seniors Matt Allocco and Zach Martini, who helped the Tigers to three straight Ivy League regular season championships after their freshman season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When I got into coaching, you just wish you could have guys like this in your program,” said Henderson. “It’s unbelievable. Allocco wasn’t the same since mid-December. He was one of the best college basketball players in the country and then he was hurt and he played through it and we won the league. Three titles. You won’t see anything like those guys.”

Martini showed his experience by taking the lead for the offense early. He had 12 of his 17 points in the first half as the Tigers built a 38-36 halftime edge. Allocco scored nine points. Their character is something that Henderson has cherished. Both have another season of NCAA eligibility they could use at another school since the Ivy League does not allow graduate students to play.

“They have an extraordinary will to win,” said Henderson. “Every day in practice the same thing — no plays off, let’s go, all about winning, not about statistics, no body language not once. All about effort. Zach is soaked in sweat every day. If we huddle for five seconds, we have to move. All effort. It’s an absolute gift to be around them. What a gift. Just the best ever. And their families…”

Sophomore star forward Caden Pierce led Princeton with 22 points and fellow sophomore Xaivian Lee finished with 10 points, most of them late in a desperate attempt to come back. Junior guard Blake Peters scored 12 points and his late 3-pointer brought the Tigers to within 81-77 with 14 seconds left, but that was the final Princeton basket of the season.

“It’s hard to watch tonight because I didn’t think we were us,” said Henderson. “Credit goes to UNLV. It’s a tough way to end the season. I thought we could keep winning, but what a pleasure to be around this group.”

It was the Tigers’ first home loss of the season after 12 straight wins at Jadwin and just the second time that Princeton lost back-to-back games this winter as they ended their 2023-24 campaign with a 24-5 record. After falling to Brown in the semifinals of the Ivy Madness postseason tournament on March 16, Princeton tried to bounce back in the NIT. The first half saw each team whistled for only two fouls apiece, and the Runnin’ Rebels showed that their size would be an issue for the Tigers. UNLV came out of halftime with a layup and three 3-pointers to turn a two-point deficit into a five-point lead quickly.

“We just didn’t have it,” said Henderson. “That team is kryptonite for us. Their length and the ball was just flying around.”

When Princeton threw double teams at Running’ Rebels star Rob Whaley Jr., he passed out of it to perimeter players for open shots. When they didn’t double, the rugged 6’7, 260-pound center scored. He finished with a career-high 21 points to lead UNLV.

“We’ve been double teaming and having lots of success all season in stopping teams, and having rotations,” said Henderson. “Holy cow, they were playing with missiles and we were playing with sticks.”

Over the first 16 minutes of the second half, UNLV shot 73.7 percent. They finished 47 percent from 3-point range and they outrebounded the Tigers by a 36-23 count. Princeton shot 45.6 percent for the game, just 41.7 percent in the second half. They made 12 of 37 3-pointers.

“Xaivian, Cade, Dalen [Davis], and Mush [Allocco] are just hurt, not well,” said Henderson. “We need that length and we couldn’t stop them. They were so much bigger and faster, which we hadn’t had happen to us all season. Kudos to them.”

Princeton trailed 70-55 with 5:28 left when they put together a rally to give themselves a chance. But even as they clawed back within four points, there were several near-misses beginning with Lee missing a layup that he regularly finishes with ease. Princeton had a great defensive possession end with a foul with 1:13 left when UNLV found Whaley Jr. under the basket with 2 seconds left on the shot clock. Allocco got a great look but missed a 3-pointer that could have made it a 3-point game on the next possession. Then Peters came within inches of a steal on the press and UNLV ended up getting more free throws. Any of those plays could have enabled Princeton to inch closer and put more pressure on UNLV.

“We were down too much,” said Henderson. “It was just too much to come back tonight. I felt great coming into the game. I loved the matchup, I thought we were going to be all right. It wasn’t. They were really good.”

Princeton was in line to host the second-round NIT game against Boston College had it won. The loss came before 1,708 fans at Jadwin who got a final look at this year’s Tigers.

“We had sellouts this year for the first time since the late ’90s and that means the world to me,” said Henderson. “It’s a culmination of this group, our administrative staff putting us in a position where we can sell those kinds of tickets. We had a really good team two years ago — we won the league outright and we were on the road as a seven seed against VCU. Hosting tonight is a culmination of where we are.”

Despite the loss and the painful way to end the season, the Tigers walk away knowing they put together another strong year. They won their third straight Ivy regular-season crown, losing only once apiece to Yale and Cornell while sweeping the rest of the league. The Tigers were also 12-1 out of conference in the regular season with their only loss coming against St. Joseph’s. Princeton defeated Duquesne, which won their first-round NCAA tournament game, and felt good about many of their accomplishments this year.

“Everything you do, you want to go to the tournament,” said Henderson. “Eighteen percent of the teams in the country or less make the NCAAs. We hosted an NIT game. It’s 100 percent a success. The seniors are bawling and I’ve done this long enough to know what a gift it is to coach those guys.”