HARTFORD, Conn. – With eight minutes, 52 seconds to go in the first half of the men's basketball team's 69-57 victory over UNLV last night, the No. 5-seeded Tigers were trailing the No. 12 seed, UNLV, 20-15. The Runnin' Rebels were using a two-three zone and the Tigers were struggling from the field.
The game was beginning to look reminiscent of Princeton's Dec. 13 loss to powerhouse North Carolina. In that game, Princeton (27-1) was unable to get many opportunities to convert backdoor layups, and the team was forced to rely on its three-point shooting. The Tigers shot 4 for 26 from behind the arc and lost 50-42.
Last night, however, the shots started falling after the slow start. Princeton trailed early, but found its shooting touch midway through the first half and put the Rebels (20-13) away on the strength of a commanding 20-2 run to close the first half.
Kudos all around
During that stretch, senior guard Mitch Henderson hit for eight of his 19 points in the game and junior guard Brian Earl added six of his game-high 21 points. After starting the game 2 for 8 from behind the three-point line, Princeton connected on seven consecutive three-pointers, a streak which extended into the second half.
All of the sudden, a 20-15 UNLV lead turned into a 12-point deficit. On the strength of the Tigers' first-half run, UNLV was forced to abandon its zone and go to a man-to-man defense in the latter half.
UNLV did make a run in the second half, drawing to within five points, 54-49, with 8:06 to play in the game, but the Tigers withstood the comeback attempt and went on to win.
"I think it was that run at the end of the first half," UNLV head coach Bill Bayno said. "Our zone got us that lead and they just figured it out and hit big shots. That was the game."
Princeton's defense contributed to the run as well. The Tigers gave up a few open shots in the early going but tightened up their defense as the half wore on.
"The first 10 minutes of the first half we didn't defend well," Princeton head coach Bill Carmody said. "The second 10 minutes, we pulled it together and that was the difference in the game. In the second half, they made a run at us and the game went back and forth. But the second 10 minutes of the first half – that was the difference."
Once UNLV gave up on its zone, Princeton was able to convert a series of backdoor plays and essentially picked UNLV apart in the second half. While the Rebels' defense worked well in the early going, they had trouble making adjustments once the Tigers started hitting their shots.
The switch from zone to man defense also opened things up in the middle for senior center Steve Goodrich. In the first half, the Rebels denied Goodrich any good looks at the basket and prevented him from getting a shot off. Princeton's second-leading scorer and the Ivy League Player of the Year did not attempt his first field goal until 3:22 had gone by in the second half. At that point, Goodrich was able to free himself up enough to get his hook shot going. He scored eight points on 3 of 7 shooting from the field in the second half.
Heading into the tournament, the Tigers maintained that if they hit their shots and cut down on their mistakes, they could beat anyone. After a slow start last night, the Tigers proved they were right and made UNLV's trip to the East Coast a short one.