LOUISVILLE, Ky. — With under a minute left in Friday night’s Sweet 16 matchup, men’s basketball senior guard Ryan Langborg banked in a deep three-pointer from the top of the key, to raucous applause from the swaths of orange gathered in the KFC Yum! Center.
The shot gave Langborg, who has often been the hero of this year’s March Madness run, a career-high of 26 points. But this time, his basket was too little, too late, cutting the deficit to just eight, a gap that would prove insurmountable in the 15th-seeded Tigers’ (23–9 overall, 10–4 Ivy League) eventual 86–75 loss to sixth-seeded Creighton (23–12, 14–6 Big East).
From the start, Princeton struggled to contain Creighton’s offense. Within the first six minutes of the game, the Bluejays scored 17 points. Key to their hot start was guard Baylor Scheierman, who scored eight of their first 12 and finished with 21 points, shooting 73 percent from the field and hitting five of his seven three-point attempts.
Although the high-flying pace of the game was not to Princeton’s advantage, the Tigers kept up throughout the first half. A mid-half 9–2 run, which included a rare three-pointer from senior forward Tosan Evbuomwan and a pair of trademarked Princeton backdoor cuts, erased an eight-point Creighton advantage, at a juncture when it had seemed that the Bluejays were ready to break the game wide open. And with just under six minutes left in the half, a three-pointer from Langborg gave the Tigers a 34–33 lead.
“[Langborg] deserves a lot more, I think, from the Ivy League, in terms of recognition,” Evbuomwan said after the game, referencing the fact that Langborg did not receive any conference honors. “But it clearly doesn't mean anything to him … he has played the last few weeks and just put us on his back. He has been unbelievable.”
“He has just been terrific,” head coach Mitch Henderson ’98 added. “His confidence level rose throughout the [NCAA] Tournament, and so did ours.”
After a three-pointer from sophomore guard Blake Peters gave Princeton their largest lead of the game, 37–33, the Bluejays flew back into the lead, going on a 12–1 run to give themselves a seven-point advantage. The Tigers once again bounced back, though, as a Peters triple and an Evbuomwan layup would bring the score to 47–43, Creighton, at the half. The English forward finished the first frame with 15 points, four rebounds, and six assists.
Despite Evbuomwan’s impressive first-half numbers, and just three Tiger turnovers, Princeton entered the locker room with a number of glaring issues. Principal among these was their inability to provide any resistance to Creighton’s offense, which was shooting a scalding 62.1 percent from the field and making half of their three-point attempts. To make matters worse, the Tigers, who entered 11th in the nation in rebounding margin, were losing the battle on the glass, 16–14.
“I thought the last four minutes of the first half was crucial, swinging their way, and we couldn't get back into the game,” Henderson said.
Although Princeton stuck around for much of the second half, the struggles both defending and rebounding meant Creighton remained in control down the stretch; for the game, Princeton was out-rebounded 37–26, and the Bluejays ended up shooting 58.2 percent from the field. Creighton opened the second half on a 21–9 run, and the undersized Tigers continued to struggle with the length of the Creighton players inside, uncharacteristically losing battles for loose balls and seeing their shots authoritatively denied at the rim.
“They're really well-coached,” Henderson noted. “They know exactly what they are, and they're very well-oiled, as we had expected.”
“We got ten more shots than they did,” he added. “We just couldn't stop them.”
A switch to a 1–3–1 zone defense somewhat dampened the Bluejay attack, as they shot just 53.8 percent from the field in the second half, but the combination of Scheierman and First Team All-Big East forward Ryan Kalkbrenner — who finished with 21 points on 75 percent shooting — remained potent.
“We had seen great size and length against Arizona, but we [hadn’t] seen Kalkbrenner's agility and speed,” Henderson said. “I thought he was the key. They just got easy baskets when they needed them.”
Of course, to hold any lead in March, a team also needs a bit of luck. In Princeton’s second-round win over Missouri, their good fortune was the hot shooting of Peters, as he scored 17 points in the game’s final 11 minutes. However, Lady Luck seemed to have sided with Creighton on Friday night. As a pair of second-half Peters three-pointers rimmed out, Scheierman banked in a triple of his own, extending the Bluejays’ lead.
After the 18-minute mark of the second half, this lead dropped below eight just once, on a pair of Tosan Evbuomwan free throws with under four minutes remaining. A string of fouls extended the game late for Princeton, but the valiant efforts of Evbuomwan (24 points, six rebounds, nine assists) and Langborg (who scored more than half of his squad’s second-half points) were not enough. The Tigers were forced into submission before the final buzzer, emptying the bench as the senior stars left the court for the final time in Orange and Black.
“We fought all the way to the end, but came up short,” Henderson said. “That does not define us one bit.”
After the game, the thousands of Tiger fans who made the trip to Kentucky didn’t filter out of the arena, treating the team to a standing ovation befitting their historic run. The Princeton faithful — alumni, students, and locals alike — were out in force all tournament long, filling both the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, Ca. last weekend and the KFC Yum! Center Friday night with rapturous cheers.
“We wouldn't be here without the fans, without the alums, everybody that's come to support us,” Langborg said. “Every time we hit a couple of shots, they're going nuts, and it gives us all the confidence in the world. I'm very thankful for everyone who is supporting us.”
With this year’s tournament characterized, as is usual, by its unpredictability — being the first where not a single one-seed team qualified for the Elite Eight — Princeton was among the most unforeseeable stories of them all. The Tigers were just the 11th 15-seed to ever win a game in March Madness, and were just the fourth to ever win two. And for the first time in modern tournament history, Princeton qualified for the Sweet 16.
“I think it just shows that there's not a lot that separates us from everyone else,” Langborg said. “[If] you have a tough group who [are] bonded and the best of friends, [and if] you play with joy, anything can happen.”
“These guys have done something that no one has ever done,” Henderson added. “I know that there [were] some really great Princeton teams in the past, but this is a really, really special team.”
Even though the team and its fans will undoubtedly wonder what could have been had the squad continued their run, making it this far in the tournament remains a historic accomplishment. And although the Tigers won’t end up lifting the trophy in Houston next week, the fact still remains: Cinderella is a Jersey girl.
“I'm so proud of them,” Henderson said. “The school is so proud of them.”
“You look at this as such a successful year. It's such a year of joy for our program.”
Wilson Conn is a head editor for the Sports section at the 'Prince.'
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