Just three games into the conference season, the men’s basketball team sits atop the Ivy League standings.
On Jan. 6, the Tigers (12–4 overall, 3–0 Ivy League) decisively took down Columbia (6–12, 1–2) in a 68–49 win on the road in New York City. The following day, a second-half rally allowed them to storm back in a thrilling 75–68 road victory over Cornell (12–4, 2–1) to take their place as outright conference leaders.
“It’s obviously still early days, so it’s just important to take it one game at a time, make adjustments each game, [and] continue to get better each game,” said senior forward Tosan Evbuomwan in a phone interview with The Daily Princetonian. “As our coach says, just [having] a spirit of improvement game-to-game and holding each other accountable.”
Saturday’s win over Cornell also meant that head coach Mitch Henderson ’98 became the eighth men’s basketball coach ever to record 100 Ivy League regular-season wins.
“He has a way of instilling confidence in players even when he is critiquing or giving advice on how to improve,” first-year forward Caden Pierce said of Henderson.
While 16 of Henderson’s wins have come against Cornell, a recent seven-game winning streak over the Columbia Lions has also helped him race towards this total in just his 12th year with the program.
The Tigers were able to expand the streak in this season’s first bout against Columbia. The game began relatively close, but a seven-minute stretch in the first half, during which the Lions failed to score a field goal, allowed Princeton to take a 36–24 lead going into halftime.
Columbia worked to get back in the game, cutting the deficit to 10 early in the second half. From there, though, the Tigers would build to a 56–32 lead about 10 minutes into the frame and complete the game with a comfortable 68–49 win. Junior guard Matt Allocco was the star of the show, putting up 16 points on 50 percent shooting from the arc.
With both Cornell and Princeton coming into their game attempting to solidify their standing at the top of the Ivy League table, tensions were understandably high in the second game of the weekend. Remarkably, just two games into the regular season, the two were the only squads in the Ancient Eight to enter their third game with a spotless conference record.
Despite winning the opening tip-off, Princeton was unable to score with the opening possession, with Cornell guard Greg Dolan laying in a basket at the other end over senior forward Keeshawn Kellman.
In a fitting answer, senior guard Ryan Langborg followed up with two consecutive catch-and-shoot three-pointers: one in the face of Dolan, and a second on the left wing not even two minutes into the game. However, Cornell forward Sean Hansen quickly retaliated with his own three-pointer, setting the tone for what would be a back-and-forth game.
Langborg has played a key role in the Tigers’ success this season, both in strong performances on the offensive end and stepping up when placed in tough situations on defense. Against Cornell, the senior led the team with 20 points, while shooting 9-for-10 on free throws, and also refused to back down on mismatches down-low.
“He’s just so physical,” Evbuomwan said. “Obviously, he’s such a great shooter, but he’s been playing really physically, and he’s been guarding really well, and he’s responsible for multiple wins this year.”
With the shot clock winding down on the Princeton possession following Hansen’s make, Allocco hit a deep one-dribble, side-step three-pointer from deep in the corner. The back-and-forth was seemingly ceaseless, with shot after shot being retorted on both ends the entire game.
Henderson employed a 1-3-1 zone, which allowed for an array of blocks from Kellman and Evbuomwan. Meanwhile, Cornell head coach Brian Earl ’98 — a former teammate of Henderson — had Big Red pressing the Tigers man-to-man in the full-court for nearly the full length of the contest. In this full-court press, the Tigers were trapped on numerous occasions and ended up throwing the ball away multiple times as a result of Cornell’s pressure. In only the first 12 minutes of play alone, Princeton turned the ball over eight times.
“We just have to take care of the ball better,” Evbuomwan explained. “As a senior especially, you know the importance of each possession so we definitely have to limit those as much as possible.”
At the break, both teams were 14-for-30 on field goals, but Cornell’s 23 bench points blew Princeton’s three out of the water. After three ties and eight lead changes, the second half got underway.
Evbuomwan began the half with an and-one, up-and-under step-through off the glass with 18:45 remaining in the game. To follow, first-year guard Deven Austin drained a mid-range jump shot to put the Tigers up 38–37.
Cornell answered the Tigers’ offensive with their own neat buckets from guards Max Watson, Chris Manon, and Isaiah Gray, who together put Big Red up 51–44. Cornell’s barrage of baskets led to a Princeton timeout being called with 12:52 remaining in the half.
Coming out of the timeout, Langborg and the Tigers wasted no time getting back in the game. The San Diego native earned a block after thwarting a Dolan attempt at posting up and later knocked away a Watson dribble that had Langborg, Watson, Evbuomwan, and Hansen all diving to get hold of the basketball. Amid the chaos, Evbuomwan went down hard, subbing off for one play but returning immediately after.
Later, Langborg again blocked Dolan in transition, bringing the ball back up the floor and passing to Pierce, who missed a three-pointer attempt. However, Austin grabbed the offensive rebound and was fouled on the putback. He went to the line and put Princeton ahead 55–54, the 11th lead change of the game.
Austin would put up another big three-pointer to keep Big Red at bay with 3:40 remaining in the game. Hansen then followed with a strong putback, nearly evening the score at 66–65. But in the final moments of the contest, Allocco — nicknamed the “Cornell Killer” for his heroic buzzer-beater in last year’s Jan. 8 game against Cornell — would hit a Dirk Nowitzki-esque fadeaway on the three-point line despite Dolan’s tight coverage to expand Princeton’s lead, 68–65.
From there, the Tigers would go on to win the game 75–68.
“The win on Saturday was huge for us,” Pierce told the ‘Prince.’ “It was a major confidence-booster to beat a team as good as Cornell on the road. I think we’re really starting to click offensively and defensively and everybody on the team is fully bought into doing whatever it takes to win.”
The first-year duo of Pierce and Austin played a crucial role in the win against Cornell. Pierce earned Ivy League Rookie of the Week honors with his double-double, which consisted of a career-high 12 points and 13 rebounds, while Austin posted his own career-high 15 points on 5-for-5 shooting.
“I feel really lucky to have such welcoming and supportive teammates and coaches who have pushed me each and every day to be a better version of myself,” Pierce said. “All the credit goes to them for making this transition to college very smooth, both on the court and off.”
The Tigers will continue their roadtrip in Providence on Jan. 14, looking to remain undefeated in the Ivy League against the Brown Bears (8–8, 1–2).
Yousif Mohamed is a contributor to the Sports section at the ‘Prince.’
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