“They’re going to be an NCAA Tournament basketball team, there’s no doubt in my mind,” said Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell in a post-game press conference about this year’s Princeton Tigers (1–0 overall, 0–0 Ivy League). The Tigers picked up right where they left off last season with a 68–61 upset win over the Power 5 Scarlet Knights (0–1 overall, 0–0 Big Ten) on Monday night.
The two teams faced off as part of the first annual Deborah Heart and Lung Center “Jersey Jam” at the CURE Insurance Arena in Trenton, marking their first matchup since 2013. Though the game was at a neutral site, the stands were overrun with Rutgers red.
“This was a first-class event ... I’d love to see more Jersey teams play each other,” Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson ’98 said during the post-game press conference. Both coaches expressed a desire to revive the interstate rivalry and build community around New Jersey collegiate basketball.
“We’ll play them every year,” Pikiell said about the Tigers.
Princeton currently leads the series 76–45 since the two teams’ initial meeting in 1917.
Pikiell was 7–0 in season openers as the Scarlet Knights’ head coach heading into the showdown between two of New Jersey’s premier athletic programs, but history has proven a faulty indicator when it comes to Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson and his Tigers.
The Tigers entered this bout with something to prove: they’re more than a Cinderella. After a historic postseason last year that saw the Tigers win an Ivy League title and make their first run to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament since the field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985, this year’s squad holds expectations that few Princeton teams before them have.
“We lost a lot,” senior guard Matt Allocco said in the post-game press conference, in reference to last year’s seniors. Three starters for the Tigers graduated last year: All-Ivy First Teamer Tosan Evbuomwan, March Madness hero Ryan Langborg, and the team’s leading shot blocker Keeshawn Kellman.
“But we still got a good team, and no matter what, we’re gonna compete,” he added. The Tigers will be looking to Allocco as a leader on both ends of the court this season.
Though it will be challenging to replace last year’s stars, the Tigers proved last night that they have more than enough talent in their returners to compete against the nation’s best.
The Tigers jumped out to an early 12–4 lead behind several stops and threes from Allocco and sophomore guard Xaivian Lee, who made his first career start. Rutgers was forced to burn to their first timeout with 15:51 remaining in the first as a result.
It was clear early on that despite their size disadvantage, the Tigers were going to put up a fight down low. They outrebounded the Scarlet Knights 12–4 heading into the first timeout, despite the looming presence of 6-foot-11-inch senior center Clifford Omoruyi, who was recently named to the All-Big Ten preseason team for the second consecutive season.
Tiger sophomore forward and reigning Ivy League Rookie of the Year Caden Pierce, who stands at just 6’7”, outrebounded Omoruyi 15-to-7 on the evening.
“He’s real physical and smart,” Pikiell said about Pierce. “He’s a really good player, and he’ll continue to be an all-league player."
Pierce and Allocco are the team’s only returning starters. The two combined for 24 of the Tigers' 39 total rebounds last night while leading the squad defensively. Allocco earned second team All-Ivy honors last season.
Rutgers would fight back and take a lead late in the first half, but, a deep pull-up three from Lee and a tough fadeaway elbow jumper from Allocco at the buzzer gave the Tigers a 32–28 lead heading into the break to cap off a 7–0 Princeton run.
Allocco led the Tigers at the half with 13 points, making six out of seven shots and six rebounds. Despite being outsized at every position, Princeton led 22–18 on the boards. However, the perimeter pressure from Rutgers did force the Tigers into nine first-half turnovers to the Scarlet Knights’ three.
Despite connecting on just four of their 12 three-point attempts in the first half, the Tigers came out firing in the second. Three consecutive triples from Lee and junior guard Blake Peters helped the Tigers extend their lead to 41–32 early in the second.
The Scarlet Knights tied the game back up at 45–45 with 10:36 remaining after a 13–4 run, but Princeton responded with a run of their own after two threes from senior forward Zach Martini and another Allocco bucket gave the Tigers a 53–45 lead with 8:45 remaining.
Rutgers cut the lead back down to two after a scoring drought from the Tigers before a pair of finishes at the rim from Lee brought the lead back to six with 3:44 remaining.
Lee — a Toronto native — spent his summer representing Canada at the U19 FIBA World Cup, where he led the Canadian squad in scoring.
“He was terrific,” Henderson said about Lee’s performance last night. “As good as he was offensively, I’m appreciative of how he’s engaging with his teammates, and being coached.”
Lee appears to have taken the sophomore leap after playing just 13.3 minutes per game last season. He was the team’s primary ball handler alongside Allocco in the backcourt, and he paced all players’ in assists with five. With the loss of Langborg, who served as the squad’s primary playmaking guard last year, consistent production from Lee will be crucial for the Tigers going forward.
The Tigers closed out the game with stout defense, ball security on offense, and a handful of free throws from Lee and Allocco.
Allocco finished with 21 points on 9-for-13 shooting, earning the game’s MVP award. Lee finished with 16 of his own, and Pierce added eight in addition to his 15 rebounds and two steals to lead Princeton to an opening night win. Despite the implementation of a full court press from Rutgers, the Tigers produced just three turnovers in the second half, thanks in large part to the poise of Allocco and Lee on the ball.
“Don’t have any fear, don’t look at the bench, just play,” Henderson told his team before the game, and they heard him. Princeton came away with their first regular season Power 5 win since November of 2021 against the South Carolina Gamecocks, successfully setting the tone for the rest of their season.
The Tigers will be back in action on Friday, Nov. 10 to take on the Hofstra Pride (1–0, 0–0 Colonial Athletic Conference) in Hempstead, N.Y.
Diego Uribe is an associate editor for the Sports section at the ‘Prince.’
Tate Hutchins is a contributor to the Sports section of the ‘Prince.’
Please send corrections to corrections[at]princeton.edu.