SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Exactly one month ago, the men’s basketball team was reeling.
After leading by as many as 19 points against Yale on Feb. 18, they coughed up the advantage, losing a game that would eventually cost them the top seed in Ivy Madness and force them to share the regular-season crown with the Bulldogs.
“This one hurts a lot, but it’s not over,” head coach Mitch Henderson ’98 said after the loss. “It’s not as bad as it’ll hurt if you don’t get where you want to get in a couple weeks. We’re going to come back fighting.”
Fast-forward four weeks, and it’s safe to say the team is exactly where they want to be. Since the Yale loss, they have won six straight games, the most recent of which being a 78–63 win over seventh-seeded Missouri that gives the program its first Sweet 16 appearance in the 64-team tournament era.
“The Yale loss specifically was a massive turning point for us, I think,” senior forward Tosan Evbuomwan told the media after the win over Missouri.
“The end of our season, [the] last five, six games, they were all huge games for us. They all felt like championship games,” he added. “All those games were big games. That kind of gives us confidence going into each game here.”
On Saturday, the Orange and Black (23–8 overall, 10–4 Ivy League) extended their winning streak — and their season — by riding lock-down defense and clutch three-point shooting to a dominant victory over Missouri (25–10, 11–7 Southeastern). Their 15-point margin is the largest ever attained in the NCAA Tournament by a 15-seed, and they are the first Ivy League team to make the Sweet 16 since Cornell in 2010.
“We are so thrilled to be going to the Sweet 16,” Henderson said. “It is an absolute pleasure being around these guys. They just grit their teeth and they do it.”
As was the case in Princeton’s first-round upset against Arizona, the biggest keys to victory were their rebounding and defense. Princeton — who ranked 14th nationally in rebounding margin entering the game — out-rebounded Missouri 44–30, while blocking four shots and holding their opponent to just 41 percent shooting from the field for the game. First-year forward Caden Pierce led Princeton in rebounding with 16, a career-high mark that was also the second-highest total by any player in this year’s NCAA Tournament at the time of the game’s conclusion.
“[We’re] a really tough group. We can switch. [They] know exactly what they’re supposed to do,” Henderson said, emphasizing his team’s mastery of man defense principles. “They keep their body in front of their guys. Good old-fashioned, tough-nosed defense.”
The repeated stellar defensive and rebounding efforts in both the Arizona and Missouri games did not mean there wasn’t room for improvements to be made between the two, though. Absent from the otherwise exemplary display against Arizona was a complete performance on the offensive end; although Princeton scraped together enough baskets for the win, they shot just 40.6 percent from the field and 16 percent from three-point range. Not one starter for Princeton notched a three-point basket.
“[Senior guard] Ryan Langborg, Cade Pierce, [junior forward] Zach Martini, they’re going to make some threes,” Henderson told the media before the Missouri matchup. “[They’ve] got to keep shooting it.”
By the end of the game, all three of these players would have a three-point make. Against Missouri, Princeton hit 12 long balls as a team, tripling their total from the Arizona game.
First up was Langborg, who hit three triples within the game’s first six minutes, and scored 11 of the team’s first 13 points. He would finish with 22, the second-highest total of his career and a team-leading mark.
“Shots weren’t going in for any of us really the last game,” Langborg said. “To see the ball go through the net is always a great start to the game.”
“This guy on my right was not named to any all-league teams at all … and he was the best player on the floor [today],” Henderson said in the press conference, gesturing towards Langborg. “If you want to argue, I’m happy to argue with anybody.”
After two dunks from senior forward Keeshawn Kellman, Martini was next up in the shooting showcase, knocking down a three-pointer that gave Princeton a 24–14 lead with just over seven minutes left in the first half.
As the team began to heat up from outside, the crowd — both neutral and Princeton supporters — began to roar with each attempt.
“We really drew on the strength of our fans this weekend,” Henderson said. “I don’t think anybody does it quite like Princeton … We are so proud to be representing our school and playing great basketball in front of what I thought was just a terrific crowd.”
While the three-pointers rained in, the Princeton defense dominated. Despite seven early points from forward Noah Carter, the Missouri offense stagnated in the first half, even enduring one seven-minute stretch during which they only managed three points.
Carter, who scored nearly half of his team’s first-half points, fought to keep Missouri in the game, though. While Princeton led by as many as 14 in the first half, they entered the locker room up by just seven points, thanks to a buzzer-beating layup by Missouri guard Sean East II.
“‘We’re going to get on that flight, [and] no matter what, when we get on that flight, we’re going to be us,’” Henderson recalls telling his team at half, referencing their planned red-eye out of Sacramento Saturday night.
“We felt like the best version of us could beat the best version of them.”
In the first half, the Orange and Black were looking pretty close to the ideal unit Henderson described. Despite being pressed by Missouri for much of the half, they had just four turnovers, and only one through the first 10 minutes, warding off a defense that was second nationally this season in steals per game (10.2). They were also out-rebounding Missouri 21–14, out-scoring them in the paint (18–8) and shooting 10 percentage points better from the floor (46.7 percent compared to 36.7 percent).
Lastly, in the first half, Princeton held Missouri’s two leading scorers — forward Kobe Brown and guard D’Moi Hodge — to just four points. The pair were each averaging over 15 points per game entering Saturday’s contest, and combined for 42 points and eight three-pointers in Missouri’s first-round win over Utah State.
Despite the lack of production from their stars, Missouri fought hard to open the second half. Although three-pointers from junior guard Matt Allocco and Pierce built another double-digit lead for Princeton, the Show-Me State squad bounced back with a vengeance, cutting the lead to 43–37 with 11 minutes remaining.
Enter sophomore guard Blake Peters.
Although he was late to the three-point hoedown, having only played two minutes with zero shot attempts in the first half, he would soon become the life of the party. In the game’s final 11 minutes, Peters made five three-pointers and tallied 17 points while leading his team on a 16–4 run that put the game away for good. He was shooting 57.1 percent from deep in the NCAA Tournament.
“All year I’ve been working on reading Tosan [Evbuomwan] and other guys,” he said. “I think I do a good job finding open space when he drives. Missouri kept coming off [of me], so I just tried to find open space.”
“At the end of the day we’ve all put in a lot of work shooting the ball,” he said. “Our slogan is ‘Make Shots.’ Today I made shots.”
“[Peters is] very calm under pressure,” Henderson added. “That’s how he is. That’s how he goes about his business.”
Impressing alongside Peters and Langborg in the stat-sheet was Evbuomwan, who was key as a ball-handler in breaking the Missouri press, and finished with nine points, nine rebounds, and five assists.
“You won’t see that again at Princeton for 50 years,” Henderson said, referencing Evbuomwan’s court vision and unorthodox skill set. “I mean, he’s really a very unique passer.”
Evbuomwan and his teammates are delighted to be moving on, but don’t plan on their tournament run ending here.
“I can’t really put the feeling into words right now, to be honest. It’s just an unreal feeling to do this with my guys,” Evbuomwan said. “We just have such a close group. We love to work with each other. We love to push each other. It’s showing.”
“Obviously being here is pretty surreal,” Langborg added. “Coming into this tournament, this is what we all wanted.”
“We’re not done yet. We’ve got a bunch of games left … we’re all so excited and ready to get after the next one.”
Princeton will play against either third-seeded Baylor (23–11, 11–7 Big 12) or sixth-seeded Creighton (23–12, 14–6 Big East) in Louisville, Ky. on Friday in the Sweet 16.
In the meantime, spring break is over, and the team — especially the seniors — will have plenty of academic challenges to tackle this week, amid the eruption of their national celebrity.
“I’ve got five seniors and they’re all writing a thesis right now,” Henderson said. “It's due in two weeks. There’s no extensions. They’ve got to get to work.”
Wilson Conn is a head editor for the Sports section at the ‘Prince.’
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