Princeton basketball is having a year to remember.
After the women’s basketball team (21–4 overall, 13–0 Ivy League) clinched the outright regular season Ivy League title on Friday night with an 88–42 win over Brown (6–20, 1–13), the men did the same on Saturday night, defeating Penn (12–15, 9–5) 93–70 in a masterful road victory where they spent nearly 34 of 40 game minutes in the lead. Both Princeton basketball teams had clinched a share of the title the week before. It was the men’s program’s 28th title in team history.
The game against Penn meant more for the Tigers than just the outright title, though. It could also have determined whether or not they rematched with the Quakers in the semifinals of the Ivy League tournament, or if they would go on to face Cornell (15–10, 7–7) in the semifinals. Should the Tigers have lost against Penn, they would have finished tied atop the Ivy League standings, and the championship would have come down to a complicated set of tie-breakers between them and Yale (17–11, 11–3). With the win, the Tigers clinched the number one seed in the tournament, and will face the Cornell Big Red on Saturday in Cambridge.
Penn, meanwhile, was already locked into the third seed in the Ivy League tournament. However, given that it was their senior night and a rivalry game, there was definitely some extra energy in the Palestra for the Quakers on Saturday night. There would also be the chance to end a five-game skid against the Tigers dating back to 2018, as well as their January loss in Jadwin Gymnasium, which they dropped by a score of 74–64.
Entering the game, both teams were missing key players who were present in the first matchup. For Penn, guard Jelani Williams, who scored 13 points in the game at Jadwin, was absent due to a finger injury.
“He is such a heart and soul of our team,” Penn Associate Head Coach Nat Graham said. “[His injury] has impacted us more than we thought it would.”
The Quakers were also missing another guard in George Smith, who had nine points and 10 rebounds in the teams’ previous matchup in 2022. Finally, Penn would be missing Head Coach Steve Donahue, who tested positive for COVID-19 Saturday morning.
“I was getting ready to come in, and I was like why is he calling me now,” said Graham, who took over Donahue’s duties for the night. It was Graham’s first time ever serving as head coach during a college basketball game.
Meanwhile, for the Tigers, starting junior guard Ryan Langborg was also sitting out with an injury, despite having played last Sunday against Harvard, a game in which he made three three-pointers.
“We really took a lot of precautions tonight [with him], and we’re hopeful for next weekend,” Princeton Head Coach Mitch Henderson ‘98 said after the game.
The game would see the top two scoring offenses in the Ivy League go head-to-head in what proved to be a shootout. However, despite their similar scoring averages, the two teams operate very differently on offense; while Penn relies more on an inside game sparked by their star guard Jordan Dingle, the Tigers move through junior forward Tosan Evbuomwan, who led the Ivy League in assists per game with 4.9 entering Saturday’s contest. Evbuomwan has helped the Tigers to the lead spot in the Ivy League in team assists; the Tigers averaged over 15 per game in Ivy play entering Saturday night, and were the only team in the Ivy League with more assists than turnovers on the season as a whole.
Finally, the two teams had seen very different levels of success in recent weeks. While the Tigers had won seven straight games, including a big win the previous Sunday in Cambridge that saw Evbuomwan and senior guard Jaelin Llewellyn combine for 34 points, Penn had won just one of three, and had lost by 14 against Dartmouth (9–16, 6–8) in their last outing.
Despite their recent struggles, Penn started hot behind the energy of a formidable senior night crowd of nearly 4,000 fans, opening a 9–3 lead early thanks to two two layups from their three-time Ivy League Rookie of the Week guard Clark Slajchert and a three-pointer from their forward Max Martz. Princeton senior forward Drew Friberg had the lone three points for the Tigers in the early going on an and-one layup.
The Tigers silenced the home crowd quickly though, despite their 0-for-5 start from the field. By the first media timeout, the Tigers had taken a 10–9 lead on a 7–0 run, capped off by another three points from Friberg, this time scored from the top of the arc on a pull-up fast-break three-pointer.
After the first media timeout, Quakers forward Michael Moshkovitz, who had 12 points in the January game at Jadwin, ended the Tigers’ run with an ankle-breaking drive and layup on Tigers junior forward Tosan Evbuomwan. Evbuomwan responded with a tough basket inside on the next possession. The battle between the two big-men continued during this stretch, with the two exchanging buckets again just minutes later.
Equally intense gamesmanship was afoot amongst the two teams’ guards as well, as both Slajchert and Llewellyn continued to go back-and-forth. Llewellyn was hot early, scoring 10 points in as many minutes to start the game.
Entering the game, the Canadian guard was sixth in the Ivy League in points per game, averaging 15.0 per contest. Penn, meanwhile, had the leading scorer in the conference in guard Jordan Dingle, who was averaging 20.1 points per game coming in, and had won Ivy League Player of the Week twice this season. Princeton senior guard Ethan Wright was tasked with guarding the talented Quaker early, and was able to effectively shut him down, allowing two points to Dingle through the first eight minutes of the game.
However, at the 12-minute mark of the first half, Wright picked up his second foul, and was forced to head to the bench. He was replaced by rarely-used first-year guard Blake Peters, who was tasked with guarding Slajchert, while Llewellyn switched to Dingle. Dingle scored four points in the first four minutes after Wright’s departure, after only scoring two during the game’s first eight minutes.
Despite the foul trouble, though, the Tigers were able to open up a lead as the half wore on, thanks in large part to the continued dominance of both Llewellyn and Evbuomwan, who played a crucial role in an 11–0 run during the first half. The run gave the Tigers a 30–21 lead roughly three quarters of the way to halftime. The pair scored 26 of the Orange and Black’s first 34 points. with 12 coming from Evbuomwan and 14 from Llewellyn.
The Tigers continued to build the lead as the clock wound closer to the half, with another three-pointer from Friberg giving the Tigers a 37–25 lead. Friberg entered the game with the most three-pointers made on the team this season with 65 triples.
Friberg downed his third three pointer in five attempts after a timeout from Princeton Head Coach Mitch Henderson ‘98 to give the Tigers a 13-point lead with 1:31 remaining in the half. Llewellyn hit a three with under a minute to go to give the Tigers a 45–31 lead at the break.
Llewellyn led all scores in the first half with 17 points, eclipsing his season average. The senior guard also eclipsed the 1,000-point mark for his college career, having had 986 career points entering the game. He led an efficient first-half Tigers offense that did not turn the ball over once and shot nearly 53 percent from the field.
“It’s kind of perfect,” Llewellyn said of reaching the milestone on the same night as winning the League. “It’s just a testament to the kind of work I’ve put in… but I prefer the team [accolades] more.”
Aside from Llewellyn, Evbuomwan was already encroaching on his season average, with 14 points of his own at the intermission. Friberg joined them as the third Tiger in double figures with 12. Dingle led the Quakers with 12 as the only Penn player scoring in the double digits during the first half.
Dingle opened the scoring in the second half, and Penn guard Bryce Washington followed his teammate’s lead and scored on the Quakers’ second possession to cut the Princeton lead to 10. In a continuation of the first half, though, putting the ball in Evbuomwan’s hands proved an effective response, and the Newcastle, U.K. native dropped in his 15th and 16th points of the night to get the Tigers on the board.
Penn’s guards would not give in though, as Slajchert, Dingle, and Washington contributed to a 7–0 run that cut the Princeton lead to as low as eight early in the second. The Tigers were once again able to build the lead back up, though, thanks to another basket from Evbuomwan and a pretty fast-break finger-roll from Ethan Wright, who scored his first points of the night on the lay-in. It was an uncharacteristically quiet night from Wright, who was averaging 15.1 points per game entering the contest, and who scored a game-high 16 in the first matchup with Penn. He would finish with just five points.
For whatever inroads Penn was able to make on offense early in the second half, they could not match the Tigers’ offensive firepower, yielding basket after basket from both the perimeter and especially through their pronounced size advantage in the paint, despite Wright having to exit once again with foul trouble early in the half.
“They are a veteran group, and they just don’t make many mistakes,” Graham said after the game. “Everything we tried to do differently defensively, they found the one thing that was wrong with it and took advantage of it.”
By the 12-minute mark, the Tigers led 65–48, fueled by a combined 7–0 scoring run from senior guard Max Johns and senior forward Elijah Barnes, who both came off of the bench in this game.
Despite efforts from Dingle, a lead of a similar size held for much of the rest of the game for the Tigers. Drew Friberg hit his fifth three of the night halfway through the half, and Evbuomwan eclipsed 20 points with just under nine minutes left in the game. It was Friberg’s seventh game this season with four or more three-pointers made, and Evbuomwan’s sixth game with more than 20 points.
After a few minutes and a few buckets from sophomore guard Matt Allocco, the Tigers opened up their largest lead of the night at 89–66. Henderson cleared the bench, giving some of the players who don’t often get a chance to appear in league play some minutes.
The players made the most of the two minutes and eight seconds of playing time they got. Two of these players helped to put an exclamation point on the dominant win, as a smooth wraparound pass from senior guard Charlie Bagin to junior forward Keeshawn Kellman resulted in a posterizing dunk. The dunk got the bench on their feet, and they stayed up as Blake Peters brought the ball up on the final possession, and the buzzer sounded.
“We’ve had really two years of waiting to have a moment like this, so I’m really appreciative and thankful to be around these guys, to be coaching this team,” Henderson said.
The team rushed the floor and jumped in celebration of winning the Ivy League championship, greeted by a trophy and championship banner.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Evbuomwan said after the game.
“It’s insane… it’s kind of surreal, I haven’t even had time to process it,” Llewellyn added.
Llewellyn led the way for the Tigers offensively, scoring 24 points on an efficient 10-for-18 shooting, including 4-for-9 from three-point range. Efficiency was the story for the Tigers offensively, as the three other players who scored in double digits for the Tigers also shot over 50 percent from the field. Friberg had 18 points on 60 percent shooting, while hitting his threes at a scalding 63 percent clip. Evbuomwan added 23 points on 9-for-14 shooting, and Allocco had 12 on 5-for-8 shooting, making two of his three attempts from long range.
“There’s no tension on this team. They search and seek out shots for each other,” Henderson said of the team’s balanced offensive attack. “They genuinely enjoy seeing each other do well.”
The Tigers shot 55 percent from the field as a team, and 46 percent from behind the arc, somehow improving on the 44 percent rate at which they made threes in the Harvard doubleheader the weekend before, and significantly eclipsing the comparatively poor 35 percent they managed in the January matchup against Penn. They also turned the ball over just twice, by far their lowest total on the season, eclipsing their previous season low of five recorded in a win in Hanover.
“I think we all just gelled really well together tonight, and showed what each of us can do,” Evbuomwan said.
For Penn, Dingle did most of the work on offense, finishing with 31 points while shooting 82 percent from two-point range. He went 0-for-8 from three. The only other Penn player to score more than 10 points was Slajchert, who closed the night with 12 points on 13 shots. Penn struggled from outside as a team, making just four three-pointers on 19 attempts. It was their second-lowest three-point total of the season, higher than only the three triples they managed in the January matchup against the Tigers.
Although Llewellyn, Friberg, and others shined for the Tigers, it seems the biggest takeaway from the final regular season game was the performance of Tosan Evbuomwan, who finished with eight rebounds and seven assists to go along with his 23 points. Although Evbuomwan had shown this versatility against Penn earlier in the season, when he came away with nine points, six rebounds, and five assists, this performance was clearly a big step up.
“It’s a unique team with a unique style of play, and he is an extremely unique player. I think it would be very hard to play the way they are playing without him,” Graham said.
Next up for Evbuomwan and the Tigers will be Cornell in the Ivy Madness semifinals. Cornell is responsible for one of the Tigers’ Ivy League losses this year, and would have been responsible for a third if Matt Allocco hadn’t been able to knock down a buzzer-beating three-pointer at Jadwin in January to give the Tigers a win.
“They have a really tough style to guard, and have a really good coach,” Henderson said of the Big Red. “We feel like there’s room for improvement for us.”
“We have so much more room to grow, and I think we’ll take this week to try and do that,” Llewellyn said, echoing his coach’s sentiment. “We’ve got a big one coming up.”
“[Winning the regular season title] was a goal we set at the start of the year, and we finally accomplished it,” Evbuomwan added. “But obviously, the job’s not finished.”
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.