HARTFORD, Conn. – Everyone in the Hartford Civic Center knew it was coming. Princeton knew it. UNLV knew it. The fans knew it.
But there was nothing the Runnin' Rebels could do to stop it. And when the open backdoor cut finally presented itself, the Tigers rode it to victory.
The fifth-seeded men's basketball team (27-1) used a flurry of backdoor layups late in the second half to defeat 12th-seeded Nevada-Las Vegas (20-13), 69-57, last night in the first round of the East Regional of the NCAA Tournament. Princeton will face the fourth seed, Michigan State (21-7), tomorrow afternoon in the second game of a 12:20 p.m. afternoon doubleheader. The Spartans defeated the 13th seed, Eastern Michigan, 83-71, in the last game of the day to secure a second-round matchup with the Tigers.
Junior guard Brian Earl led all scorers with 21 points, while senior guard Mitch Henderson tallied a season-high 19 points, along with six assists and three steals. Junior forward Gabe Lewullis added 17 points, and senior center Steve Goodrich, who did not attempt a shot in the first half, chipped in eight second-half points.
After trailing by as much as 15 points midway through the second half, UNLV rallied behind the three-point shooting of senior forward Tyrone Nesby to cut the lead to five points before Princeton head coach Bill Carmody called a 20- second timeout with seven minutes, 58 seconds left in the game. The Tigers, desperate to wrest the momentum from the Rebels' grasp, went to their trademark – the backdoor cut.
UNLV coach Bill Bayno, who faced the Tigers while he was an assistant coach at Massachusetts, anticipated the upcoming backdoor run and debated switching to a zone defense to thwart Princeton's cuts. But Bayno ultimately decided to stick with the man-to-man defense UNLV had used successfully during its late run in the Western Athletic Conference.
In his gut, Bayno knew it was coming, but he hoped that maybe, just maybe, the Rebels, unlike so many other Princeton opponents this season, could stop it.
Not a chance.
On the ensuing possession, Earl converted a wide-open backdoor layup off of a pass from Goodrich to extend the lead to seven. After 30 minutes of chasing the Princeton players over and around screens, fatigue began to set in on the Rebels and their defense suffered. They could no longer keep up with the suddenly re-energized Tigers, whose next four baskets came on wide-open layups.
"At the end of the game, the defense gets really tired and that's when we really get layups with the backdoor," Lewullis said. "Giving up easy layups has got to be tough for a team to take."
In the hole
UNLV's zone defense allowed the Tigers to get open looks at the basket early in the first half, but Princeton could not convert its three-point shots and found itself down 15-20 with 8:52 left in the half.
"We started the game a little nervous," Carmody said. "We didn't have a guy who wanted to shoot the ball.
But Princeton used a 20-2 run late in the first half to turn the five-point deficit into a 15-point lead. Lewullis and Earl each knocked down two three-pointers in the run, while Henderson contributed one three-point shot and a three-point play on a driving left-handed layup. After Earl drained a shot from two feet beyond the top of the arc with 37 seconds left in the half, the Tigers led 35-20.
Though Princeton played the unfamiliar role of favorite last night, the Tigers will resume their underdog status tomorrow when they face Michigan State, which tied with Illinois for the Big Ten regular season championship.
Spartan head coach Tom Izzo, like Bayno, knows what's coming tomorrow. He just doesn't know how to stop it.