Bouncing back from a disappointing 50-42 loss to No. 1 North Carolina, the men's basketball team took out its revenge against another Atlantic Coast Conference team from North Carolina, en route to four straight wins and its current No. 15 ranking in both national polls.
Indeed, while the Tigers (11-1) expressed frustration over the UNC loss, they went a long way towards making up for it by knocking off then-No. 22 Wake Forest Dec. 19 at the Jimmy V Classic in East Rutherford.
Led by junior guard Brian Earl's 18 points and a perfectly timed backdoor pass from sophomore forward Mason Rocca to senior guard Mitch Henderson with 32.1 seconds to go in the game, the Tigers held off the Demon Deacons, 69-64.
The Tigers led by as many as 12 points in the second half, but a late Wake rally brought the Demon Deacons back to within two, 63-61, after a three-pointer by Loren Woods.
Another ACC victory
Playing in place of senior center Steve Goodrich, who fouled out with one minute, 35 seconds to play, Rocca found Henderson for the layup to put the Tigers back up by four. Wake Forest started fouling to stop the clock, but the Tigers were able to convert their free throws and emerged with the victory ? the team's second in three games against ACC teams.
"I thought we played very well against Wake Forest," Henderson said. "They played a style of defense that just caters to everything we want to do."
A week later, the Tigers traveled to Madison Square Garden for the first round of the ECAC Holiday Festival and played Drexel in what was arguably the Tigers' worst game of the break.
Despite shooting just 39.5 percent from the field, including 4 for 25 from behind the three-point line, and trailing 33-25 at halftime, the Tigers came back to beat the Dragons, 58-56. Earl once again led the Tigers in scoring, with 17 points.
'Lucky' to win
"We struggled against Drexel," Henderson said. "They played us really tight and scouted us really well. We kind of got lucky with the win."
Nonetheless, the Tigers advanced to the championship game to take on Niagara, which surprised tournament host St. John's a day earlier. Led by senior forward James Mastaglio's 18 points, the Tigers defeated the Purple Eagles, 61-52. Earl chipped in with 14 points and three assists to help lead the way.
In what is becoming a recurring experience, Earl was named the tournament Most Valuable Player. It marked the fourth time in as many in-season tournaments, dating back to last season, that Earl garnered MVP honors.
The Tigers capped off their winter break with a 77-48 thrashing of Manhattan before a season-high 6,230 fans at Jadwin Gym. Henderson scored 13 points and dished out five assists to lead the Tigers to the easy victory. Princeton led 35-15 at the half and pushed the margin to as many as 32 points in the second half.
"I was very pleased with the whole effort," head coach Bill Carmody said.
The blowout, which Carmody also called "our best game all year," afforded the head coach the opportunity to empty his bench for much of the second half, giving reserves like Rocca, sophomore forward Nate Walton and freshmen guard C.J. Chapman numerous minutes, the likes of which they had not seen since the Dec. 9 Bucknell victory.
While the North Carolina loss was a major letdown for the team, the Tigers were able to channel their disappointment into four straight wins.
"That North Carolina game was really tough because that was a game we thought we should have won," Walton said. "That kind of kept us going, kept a hunger in us that we needed over the break."