HARTFORD, Conn. – Coming off a convincing win over UNLV March 12, the men's basketball team was set to face another big, physical team in Michigan State in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Princeton was looking for a repeat of its first round performance in which the team's hot outside shooting enabled it to get numerous backdoor layups and propelled it to victory.
Instead, poor shooting from the field and the free-throw line and a stellar game from Spartan guard Mateen Cleaves combined to eliminate the Tigers (27-2), 63-56.
With 34 seconds remaining, Cleaves nailed a clutch three-pointer from the top of the key to put Michigan State up 59-54, effectively ending Princeton's chance for a comeback win. Junior guard Brian Earl missed a jumper on Princeton's next possession, and the Tigers' season was all but over.
Princeton shot just 40 percent from the field. Perhaps most damaging of all was the team's struggles from the free-throw line. Princeton shot just 9 for 18 from the charity stripe, well below the team's 68 percent average for the season.
Michigan State (22-7) held a decisive edge in the rebounding department, gathering 24 more boards than the Tigers. Princeton's 15 rebounds were a season low.
The Big Ten regular-season co-champions also were extremely effective defensively. The Spartans prevented the Tigers from getting many open layup attempts and Princeton was able to convert only one backdoor layup in the entire game.
With the backdoor not working, Princeton was forced to rely on its outside shooting. The Tigers shot just 25 percent from behind the three-point line.
The game marked the first time all season that Princeton did not hold the lead for at least part of the game.
Cleaves led the Spartans with a game-high 27 points, while also pulling down a career-high nine rebounds.
"I thought (Cleaves) dominated the game completely," head coach Bill Carmody said. "We didn't have an answer for him."
Michigan State jumped out to a 10-0 lead to start the game. The Tigers came right back with a 15-5 run to tie the game at 15. After the Spartans reclaimed the lead, Princeton tied the game once again, at 31 with 36 seconds to go in the first half. But as would be the case all game, the Spartans were successful in preventing the Tiger comeback and would not allow the Tigers to take the lead. Michigan State then took a page from Princeton's playbook when Charlie Bell took a pass from Antonio Smith and converted a backdoor layup.
The Spartans went into the half with only a 33-31 advantage despite leading by as many as 10 points in the first half.
The second half proved to be much like the first, however. Michigan State went on an 8-0 run to start the half and Princeton again was forced to dig itself out of a hole. Just as they did in the first half, the Tigers once again came through. Senior forward James Mastaglio hit a jumper just inside the three-point line to cap a 10-3 Princeton run, tying the game at 54 with 2:02 to play. It looked as if the Tigers were poised to take control of the game. Unfortunately for Princeton, the Spartans refused to fold.
Morris Peterson converted a pair of free throws to put the Spartans back up by two. Mastaglio missed a three at the other end, and Michigan State grabbed the rebound and called a 20-second timeout. Following the timeout Cleaves hit the three-pointer that put the game away.
Earl then missed a jumper with 18 seconds left, and Princeton was forced to start fouling. The Spartans converted four free throws down the stretch and emerged with the win.
"(Michigan State) played hard and they played smart," Carmody said. "In every game you lose, the other team has something to do with it and in this game they certainly did. "
The Spartans went on to lose to North Carolina in the Sweet 16, 73-58.
While the loss was a disappointment, the 1997-98 season was a remarkable overall success. The Tigers set school records for wins in a season (27), longest winning streak (20 games), three-pointers in a season (265) and assists in a season (478). Regardless of the outcome of the tournament, Princeton will finish the season with the best winning percentage in Division I. Its only two losses came at the hands of the Big Ten co-champion and an eventual Final Four participant.
Princeton made a steady climb into the top 10 in both national polls and received an inordinate amount of national media attention. The Tigers also developed a hardcore fan following that finally gave the team a real home-court advantage in Jadwin Gym. This season will undoubtedly be remembered for many years to come.