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Men’s basketball season ends with 90–79 defeat against VCU in first round of NIT

<h5>Senior guard Jaelin Llewellyn registered 13 points in the loss.</h5>
<h6>Courtesy of @PrincetonMBB/Twitter.</h6>
Senior guard Jaelin Llewellyn registered 13 points in the loss.
Courtesy of @PrincetonMBB/Twitter.

The men’s basketball team’s season is officially over.

On Tuesday night, the Tigers (23–7, 12–2 Ivy League) traveled to Richmond, Va. to take on the Virginia Commonwealth Rams (22–9, 14–4 Atlantic 10) in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament (NIT), losing 90–79. The game tipped off just 53 hours after the Tigers lost the Ivy Madness final to Yale (19–11, 11–3 Ivy League) in Cambridge, Mass., which cost them a spot in March Madness.

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The Tigers automatically qualified for the NIT by having won the Ivy League regular season title. It was the program’s seventh appearance in the tournament and its first since 2016. The Tigers won the NIT in 1975.

Unfortunately for Princeton, this would not be the year that they follow in the footsteps of Pete Carrill’s famous team from nearly five decades ago. Due to hot shooting from the Rams, who had their highest-scoring game of the season Tuesday night, as well as a second consecutive cold game for the typically accurate Tigers from beyond the arc, they never really threatened to win the game down the stretch.

But that didn’t mean they weren’t competitive. To open the scoring in the first, Rams guard Keshawn Curry knocked down a three-pointer. Junior forward and Ivy League Player of the Year Tosan Evbuomwan responded on the next possession with a layup, sparking a 9–0 Tigers run which gave them an early six-point advantage. 

The Tigers were especially strong early in the game on defense, as the Rams shot one-for-five and turned the ball over twice before the first media timeout. VCU was able to heat things up offensively quickly, as the Rams fought back into the lead with a 7–0 run of their own. This run put the Rams ahead for good, and by the end of the first half, they led 39–32. 

The struggles for Princeton stemmed from their inefficiency from three-point range, as they shot a dismal 16.7 percent from deep in the first half. While they weren’t necessarily expected to shoot their best following a 33-percent three-point outing against Yale in the Ivy Madness final, as well as due to VCU’s stifling three-point defense (allowing 27.5 percent shooting, third in Division I), this result was especially staggering.

VCU, meanwhile, was punching well above its weight from both behind the arc and the field, shooting 42.9 percent and 56.7 percent, respectively. The Rams ranked just 145th and 74th in those categories entering the game, and both numbers they had recorded in the first half significantly exceeded their season averages.

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Despite their shooting struggles, the Tigers would not give up in the second half, similarly to the game against Yale. To begin the half, senior guard Ethan Wright scored six quick points to bring the Tigers within three points, with the Rams leading 44–42. Wright finished with 18 points and seven rebounds.

Each time the Rams tried to pull away for the rest of the half, Princeton responded. A heads-up steal from senior guard Jaelin Llewellyn gave him a wide-open fast-break layup, cutting the VCU lead to just two at 50–48 with 15 minutes left in the half.

For whatever inroads they made offensively, the Tigers could not make stops on defense, preventing them from overtaking the Rams. After Llewellyn’s basket, VCU made another run, capped off by a Curry dunk. He would finish with 23 points, over double his scoring average.

With the lead hovering between eight and 10 points for much of the second half, three-pointers from junior guard Ryan Langborg and sophomore guard Matt Allocco kept the Tigers in the contest, even cutting the lead to six points with under six minutes remaining.

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The defense never came for the Tigers, though, and as the clock ticked under two minutes, the game slowly came out of reach. The Tigers were given a lifeline down seven points with around 30 seconds left from a VCU foul and subsequent turnover, but senior forward Drew Friberg saw his free-throw bounce off the rim. After that point the Rams were able to salt the clock away and begin celebrations in front of their home crowd.

The trends that plagued the Tigers in the first half held up for much of the second. While their three-point shooting improved to 34.6 percent for the game by the final buzzer, they fell significantly short of their season average of 38.8 percent from deep. 

Defense problems abounded for the Tigers against the taller and more athletic Rams. By the end of the game, VCU — which ranked just 298th in scoring offense entering the game — had put up 90 points, thanks to a career-high of 23 points from guard Adrian Baldwin, Jr., as well the 23 from Curry and 17 points from forward Vince Williams, who also had 11 rebounds. The Rams would finish the game shooting a staggering 50 percent from three-point range and 58.1 percent from the field.

Leading the Tigers was Evbuomwan, who put up 22 points, 12 rebounds, and seven assists in the final game of his junior season. Had the Newcastle, U.K. native recorded three more assists, he would have become the first player in program history to record a triple-double. Langborg also contributed 16 points on an efficient 6–7 shooting. Outside of these two players, the team was not terribly efficient, as the other eight Tigers who stepped on to the floor shot a combined 38.3 percent from the floor.

The game was a heartbreaking end to a season for a team that had its sights set on March Madness just a few days ago. It was also a heartbreaking end to the Princeton careers of six seniors, including Llewellyn, Wright, and Friberg, as well as guards Max Johns and Charlie Bagin, and forward Elijah Barnes.

Llewellyn finished his career with 1,064 points, the 36th player in program history to crack the 1,000 mark. Wright finished with 695, and Friberg with 549. The trio of starters were all named to All-Ivy teams this year, with Llewellyn being named to the All-Ivy First Team, Wright to the All-Ivy Second Team, and Friberg to the All-Ivy Academic Team. All three will look to continue their college careers with their final year of eligibility next year after entering the transfer portal on Monday.

Key players expected to return for the Tigers next year include Evbuomwan, Langborg, and Allocco. Aside from those three, the Tigers will have to rely on a number of their younger and less-experienced players to have a chance at replicating this year’s success.

Wilson Conn is a co-head editor for the Sports section at the Princewho typically covers football, basketball, and breaking news. He is also a senior writer for the Podcast section. He can be reached at wconn@princeton.edu or on Twitter at @wilson_conn.

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