The Tigers are just one win away from the NCAA Tournament.
Just as the women’s basketball team did in their semifinal the day before, the men’s basketball team (23–5, 14–0 Ivy) faced a tough challenge from their fourth-seeded opponent, ultimately escaping in a down-to-the-wire win to advance to the Ivy Madness final.
The Tigers got all they could handle from Cornell (15–11, 7–7), escaping with a 77–73 win despite leading by as many as 17 points in the first half. It was the Tigers’ second win in three tries against Cornell this season, with both teams having won previously on their home courts.
The matchup between Cornell and Princeton brings extra intrigue these days, as the teams are coached by former Princeton basketball teammates Brian Earl ’99 (Cornell) and Mitch Henderson ’98 (Princeton). Earl also served as a coach at Princeton with Henderson before taking the job with the Big Red in 2016.
“We worked together for six years. Every trick I have, he knows,” Henderson added. “We’re doing the same stuff. It’s really hard to guard.”
The first matchup of the season saw Princeton defeat Cornell 72–70 in Jadwin Gymnasium thanks to a buzzer-beating three-point heave from sophomore guard Matt Allocco. Notably, First-Team All-Ivy senior guard Jaelin Llewellyn did not play.
Despite Llewellyn’s return in the second matchup on Feb. 4, the Tigers lost 88–83 in Ithaca. Cornell was powered by guard Chris Manon, who racked up 22 points in the victory. Junior forward Tosan Evbuomwan led all scores with 27, and senior guard Ethan Wright had 26. This was the Tigers’ second and final loss of the Ivy League regular season; since then, they have won seven consecutive games.
Cornell, meanwhile, finished the season with two important wins to sneak into the tournament. Prior to the two wins, they had won just one of their last five games. With the late surge, the Big Red clinched their second-ever Ivy Madness appearance, while the Tigers made their fourth. The two teams had never previously played each other in the tournament.
There was no doubt that the teams’ first-ever postseason matchup would bring fireworks. The teams possessed the top two scoring offenses in the Ivy League entering the game, both of which also ranked top-20 in Division I, with Princeton being the eighth-best scoring offense in the country. The two teams also possessed the top two field goal percentages in the conference entering the game and the top two marks in three-pointers made per game, with Princeton ranking fifth nationally at 11 triples per contest.
Junior guard Ryan Langborg scored the first points of the game with a three-pointer, courtesy of junior forward Tosan Evbuomwan’s assist. In his first game back from an injury, Langborg picked up right where he left off from deep; this season, he has placed fourth in the Ivy League in three-point percentage, knocking down 40 percent of his attempts.
A few possessions later, Llewellyn found himself with the ball in the corner and a defender running straight at him. A slick pump-fake got his opponent off the ground, giving him enough space to knock down a three-point shot while his defender jumped back into the play and fouled him. His bucket put this year’s Tigers into the record books, as it officially set a new program record for team three-pointers made in a single season. The previous record of 298 was set during the 2016–17 season, the last time that Princeton qualified for the NCAA Tournament.
Princeton’s accuracy from downtown was on full display from the very start. Back-to-back three-pointers from senior guard Ethan Wright and senior forward Drew Friberg pushed the lead to 14–2 just three minutes into the game. The team would go on to shoot 55 percent from three-point range in the first half, an improvement over the 25 percent at which they converted long-range attempts in the last match-up against Cornell.
Princeton’s quick start was fueled by the elusive play of their second-leading scorer, Llewellyn, who averaged 15.4 points per game entering the contest, the fifth-best mark in the Ivy League. The Ontario native had his fingerprints all over the half, putting up an efficient 17 points in 16 minutes while shooting 70 percent from the field and hitting two out of three three-point attempts.
Cornell tried to adjust to Princeton’s hot offensive start by sending full-court pressure at the Tigers. However, speeding the game up would initially prove unsuccessful for the Big Red. Moving the ball up the court, Princeton was able to locate a wide open Ethan Wright spotting up in the corner. His three-pointer created the biggest lead of the game for Princeton, 35–18 with 8:28 to play until the intermission.
Despite being down double-digits to the No. 1 team in the Ivy League, Cornell would not go down without a fight. The Big Red went on a tear to close out the half, putting together a 22–5 run to close the gap to 40–35 heading into the locker room. Cornell’s offense was evenly spread, with guard Nazir Williams leading the way scoring 8 points off the bench.
The scoring-by-committee approach is nothing new for Cornell. Despite having the second-best scoring offense in the Ivy League, the Big Red don’t have a single player who is top-15 in scoring in the conference. In the first half, eight Cornell players scored, but none scored in double figures. They would finish with 29 bench points, compared to Princeton’s five. This type of attack is difficult to prepare for, according to Henderson.
“They are so different from everything else that we see,” he said. “We spent the entire week working on Cornell.”
In contrast, the stars took care of the heavy lifting for Princeton. Llewellyn’s 17 first-half points were complemented by Ethan Wright’s 10 points on four-for-five shooting from the field. Along with Evbuomwan, the pair form a trio of Tigers who average over 15 points per game. They led an offense which shot 59 percent from the field despite scoring just five points during the last seven minutes of the half.
Cornell continued to build upon their momentum from the first half into the second, starting with a quick 7–0 run to give them their first lead of the game, 42–40. The two teams kept exchanging blows, neither able to fully pull away, and the half saw 10 lead changes. It would remain a close game until the very end, with no team leading by more than four points during the final 14 minutes.
“There’s a certain level of aggression that we play with on defense,” Earl said. “It wears on them a little bit.”
The game reached a standstill at about the six-minute mark. Neither team could buy a bucket with Cornell up one, 67–66. Finally, Cornell guard Dean Noll managed to take the lid off of the rim, shooting a pull-up jumper by the elbow that softly bounced on the rim three times before dropping in and giving the Big Red their largest lead of the game at 69–66.
Soon thereafter, the scoring picked up once again. Princeton managed to take back their lead after a big assist from Evbuomwan. After muscling his way into the paint for a hard-earned offensive rebound, the Newcastle, U.K. native found Llewellyn flashing to the corner for a timely three-point basket, making the score 71–69 in favor of Princeton.
Although he got off to a slow start in the first half, Evbuomwan, who was named the Ivy League Player of the Year earlier this week, turned things around down the stretch. Out of his 21 points, 16 came in the second half on 67 percent shooting from the field. With his eight field goals in the half, Evbuomwan was the only Princeton player to make more than two shots after the intermission. It was also the 14th time this season that Evbuomwan tallied five or more points, rebounds, and assists, and the fifth time he’s done so in the last six games, as he picked up six rebounds and six assists as in the game.
“He’s just so different [from] anyone I’ve ever met or coached,” Henderson said. “I wouldn’t want to play against him at all. He’s a really elite player.”
With under three minutes remaining in the game, a battle of the bigs was underway between Evbuomwan and Cornell forward Kobe Dickson. The two went after each other play after play, exchanging post buckets with a combination of brute force and graceful footwork. By the one–minute mark, the game was tied 73–73.
Tensions reached a new high after two clutch offensive rebounds by Princeton. Evbuomwan and Wright crashed the offensive glass, each securing crucial offensive rebounds to keep the Tigers’ possession alive. Wright would finish with 12 points and a crucial six boards, one short of his season average for rebounding, which is the fourth-best mark in the Ivy League.
“I thought Ethan’s rebound was special, epic,” Henderson remarked. “Very typical of him.”
After the Tigers’ second rebound with 38 seconds on the clock, the energy was sucked out of the building while the referees conducted a review at the scorer’s table. Due to a technical error with the shot clock, each team had the chance to huddle up and prepare a game plan for the final seconds. The Tigers would have six seconds on the shot clock to make a play.
When it was time for the Tigers to make a play, it did not come as a surprise to see the Ivy League Player of the Year with the ball in his hands.
First, Evbuomwan went into his bag of tricks, smoothly executing an in-and-out crossover which created a sliver of separation on his right side. Then, as he does best, he put his head down and bullied his way into the paint. He hung in the air with remarkable body control, putting up the go-ahead bucket with a soft kiss off the glass. Princeton now led 75–73 with just 34 seconds remaining.
With a chance to tie it up, Cornell ran a pick-and-roll with the ball in their point guard’s hands. Guard Dean Noll came off of the screen to his left, stopping and popping right at the free-throw line with 10 seconds on the clock. If the ball found its way through the net, the game would have been tied; however, his shot hit the back of the rim with just a few seconds remaining, putting an end to Cornell’s tournament aspirations.
The same player that scored the first points of the game also scored the last. Ryan Langborg, an 80 percent free-throw shooter on the season, stepped up to the line and confidently knocked down two foul shots to seal the deal.
While Langborg’s late success at the line was not reminiscent of how the team shot from the stripe in the game, the team did excel shooting from both three-point range (44 percent) and the field (52 percent). It was just the third time since the beginning of the conference schedule that Cornell had given up over 40 percent shooting to an opponent from three-point range, and the first time in 11 games that a Cornell opponent had managed better than 50 percent from the field, a testament to the firepower and efficiency of the Tigers’ offense.
Embodying this firepower and efficiency was Llewellyn, who finished with 23 points while shooting 60 percent from the field and 67 percent from deep.
The Tigers have now won eight consecutive games in the Ivy League, and will look to make it nine on Sunday afternoon against Yale (18–11, 11–3), who defeated Penn (12–16, 9–5) in the Ivy Madness semifinals on Saturday by a score of 67–61. The two teams split their regular season matchups, with both squads winning at each other’s gyms. The most recent matchup was a Tigers win on Feb. 19 in New Haven by a score of 81–75.
Should the Tigers beat Yale, they would advance to March Madness for the first time since 2017, and just the second time during Henderson’s tenure.
“You don’t want Princeton showing up as the guy in your bracket,” Earl said. “That’s how it was years ago, because [playing against the Princeton Offense] was like going to the dentist. This year, it’s the opposite … if I didn’t have to play against them, I would really admire watching those shots go in.”
With the possibility of a run in the NCAA Tournament looming, Henderson and the team seem focused on taking care of business in the Ivy League first.
“That’s a really great win,” Coach Henderson said. “But we didn’t come up here to win one. We came up here to win two.”
Matt Drapkin is a staff writer for the ‘Prince’ sports section. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @mattdrapkin.
Wilson Conn is a co-head editor for the Sports section at the ‘Prince’ who typically covers football, basketball, and breaking news. He is also a senior writer for the Podcast section. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @wilson_conn.