CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – "This is a team that could win the national championship."
One might have expected those words to come from the mouth of head coach Bill Carmody after then-No. 22 men's basketball's 50-42 loss to then-No. 2 North Carolina Dec. 13 at the Dean Smith Center.
But Carmody would only have been stating what was obvious to any college hoops fan in the country. Its roster laden with future NBA players, UNC would claim the top ranking in both the Associated Press Poll and the USA Today/ESPN Coaches Poll two days later.
Instead, the words came from the mouth of UNC head coach Bill Guthridge, but he wasn't referring to the Tar Heels. He was talking about Princeton.
Indeed, the Tigers demonstrated in defeat that they are deserving of their Top 25 ranking and should not be overlooked come NCAA tournament time. Princeton controlled the tempo of the game, and if not for a 4-for-26 shooting performance from beyond the three-point line, the Tigers would likely have pulled off the upset.
Like last season's matchup, in which UNC defeated Princeton, 69-60, at Jadwin Gym, this year's game was a contrast of styles. The Tar Heels entered the contest averaging nearly 83 points per game, with their lowest point total, 68, coming in a 30-point win over Chattanooga. Princeton, on the other hand, had held its opponents to just 47 points per game and had yet to surrender more than 56 points.
Clearly, one of the teams was going to play a different kind of game than it was used to. That team turned out to be UNC, as the Tigers' slow-down style won out over the Tar Heels' fast-break offense. Princeton used the majority of the shot clock on each possession, patiently waiting for back-door layups and open three-point shots to develop.
Though UNC had few fast-break opportunities, the Tar Heels used their athleticism to play aggressively. UNC guards Shammond Williams and Ed Cota continually drove past Princeton defenders into the lane or fed forward Vince Carter for one of his three alley-oop dunks.
"We play below the rim, they play above the rim," Carmody said. "They take you off the dribble and we couldn't keep our bodies in front of them."
Princeton was able to contain the Tar Heels' dribble penetration in the early going, and the Tigers held the lead until Carter's dunk with 33 seconds left in the first half tied the game at 21-21. The lead changed hands several times in the second half before UNC, behind the play of Williams and Cota, pulled away in the closing minutes of the game.
Senior guard Mitch Henderson led the Tigers with 14 points and was the only Princeton player to shoot better than 50 percent from the floor. Junior guard Brian Earl had 10 points, five rebounds, and four steals, but shot just 2 for 9 from beyond the arc.