SACRAMENTO — The upset plan had gone all wrong. Princeton thought it needed to limit its turnovers to five; the Tigers had more than twice that number. Strong perimeter shooting was essential; they missed 21 of their 25 three-pointers. They needed to avoid falling too far behind in the second half and keep the pressure on mighty Arizona. They trailed by 10 as the clock ticked under eight minutes.
Coach Mitch Henderson couldn’t even save his timeouts for critical moments. His team used its last one with 13:06 left in the game. This was no way for a No. 15 seed to shock a No. 2. Yet the Tigers did it nonetheless. They conjured some Pete Carril magic from three decades ago, and when that wasn’t enough, they went all Rocky Balboa on the bigger and more skilled opponent.
“We are imperfect,” Henderson said. “But we’re a very, very, very tough group.”
If you suffer from grit bias and fail to associate toughness with an Ivy League school, re-watch what Princeton accomplished Thursday afternoon at Golden 1 Center and eradicate that misconception immediately. With little besides fight to offer, the Tigers revised their best-laid plans on the fly and stunned the Wildcats, 59-55.
Asked about late adjustments trailing 51-41 with less than eight minutes left in a low-possession game, Henderson joked: “No. Used all my timeouts.”
Asked for insight into his mind-set as his team rallied and made it a one-possession game, at 53-50, with 5½ minutes remaining, Henderson joked, “How I wish I had more timeouts.”
It was imperfect, in every way.
But at the end, it seemed beautiful.
It seemed poetic. For the first time in 25 years, Princeton won an NCAA tournament game. Henderson was a senior on that 1998 team when the Tigers beat UNLV in the first round and finished the season with a 27-2 record and No. 8 national ranking. Henderson was an exuberant sophomore leaping for the heavens in 1996 after Carril, in his final season at Princeton, led the 13th-seeded team to a 43-41 upset of No. 4 UCLA.
Now, in the city where Carril brought his Princeton offense concepts to the pros as an NBA assistant, the Tigers are an overjoyed March disrupter again.
“Pretty surreal feeling,” Princeton guard Matt Allocco said. “To beat a great team like that on this stage is a pretty special feeling. But also I can’t say I’m surprised. This team has been so good all year, so gritty. On paper, it’s going to look like a big upset. But we believe in each other, and we think we’re a really good team. When we’re at our best, then I think we can beat anybody in the country.”
Ryan Langborg gave Princeton its first lead at 56-55 on a pull-up jumper with 2:03 to play, and soon after, Arizona’s Final Four hopes toppled. The Tigers stood up to the Wildcats, grabbed one more rebound than they did and scored eight more points in the paint. Arizona kept going to center Oumar Ballo and forward Azuolas Tubelis, but while that duo combined for 35 points, Princeton didn’t compound matters by fouling.
Somehow, Arizona attempted just seven free throws, which irritated Arizona Coach Tommy Lloyd. But for the most part, officiating wasn’t the problem. The Tigers played physical post defense within the rules. They collapsed in the paint and dared Arizona to make shots from the perimeter. The Wildcats went just 3 for 16 from deep.
For the third straight year, a No. 15 seed won a tournament game. In a college basketball landscape of mass transfers and fluid rosters, an upset isn’t really an upset anymore. Princeton had experience and continuity. It received better production than Arizona from its bench. Senior forward Tosan Evbuomwan impacted the game in multiple ways, scoring 15 points, grabbing seven rebounds and adding four assists. Junior forward Zach Martini, who suffered a collapsed lung five months ago, came off the bench to contribute seven points and seven rebounds.
Henderson looks for toughness in recruiting, and in the finest moment of his coaching career, the competitive character of his team prevailed. Naturally, people will gravitate to the full-circle moment because Henderson played on the previous two Princeton teams that advanced in the tournament and the team has been honoring Carril, who died at age 92 in August, all season. Even UCLA, Princeton’s favorite old West Coast victim, is at this site.
But Henderson wants these players to have their moment. They are not the Princeton we remember. They have their own style, and now they have their own legacy.
“There’s going to be some comparisons from some of you, I’m sure, to Coach Carril,” said Henderson, whose team will play seventh-seeded Missouri on Saturday. “I want to be really clear that this group did this. That was a really long time ago. This group did something special for its university, for the fans, for the former players and for one another. They came together and did it.
“We’ve enjoyed, the guys who I played with, that UCLA win for a long time, so these guys get that opportunity now. That was awesome.”
If Carril made the nation appreciate Princeton for its offensive execution, this team proves that Princeton can trade elbows with anyone. The players specialize in the hidden little desire plays: deflections, hustling to rotate on defense to limit an offense’s drive-and-kick opportunities, blocked shots, floor burns.
“A team that never gives up, a team that always fights for one another,” Evbuomwan said. “When we are playing our best, we think we can take down everybody.”
Said Lloyd about the Tigers, “They’re a hard team to play against.”
They played an erratic game against a team that feasts on inefficient opponents. They played bully ball against a team that used two 7-footers and a 6-foot-11 player in its rotation. On this day, the Princeton offense was not worthy of a label or acclaim.
Still, the Tigers honored Carril’s memory. Better yet, they created new memories and a standard for the next generation of Princeton basketball.
In hindsight, Henderson didn’t need any extra timeouts. Fancy strategy and fiery motivation would have been superfluous. His team knew what to do: fight.
The Princeton offense will live forever. But this new, rugged Princeton onslaught will continue for at least another round.