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Princeton’s magical run ends with Sweet 16 loss to Creighton

Princeton's Ryan Langborg shares an embrace with Coach Mitch Henderson late in the Tigers' 86-75 loss to Creighton, ending the No. 15 seed's stunning run into the Sweet 16. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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LOUISVILLE — Even in this tournament filled with surprises, on a night that saw the final two top seeds eliminated, the biggest Cinderella remaining couldn’t continue its magical run.

The No. 15 in front of Princeton’s name suggested the Tigers would lose in the first round — and if not then, certainly in the second. But the Ivy League champions hadn’t been overmatched until Friday, when they ran into sixth-seeded Creighton in the Sweet 16.

The Bluejays stormed ahead in the second half, securing an 86-75 victory that sends them to the Elite Eight to face fifth-seeded San Diego State, which advanced by upsetting No. 1 seed Alabama. Both schools are in a region final for the first time and seeking their first trip to the Final Four.

“We’ve taken a step that nobody that’s ever worn a Creighton uniform has ever taken,” Creighton Coach Greg McDermott said. “That’s really special stuff.”

All four No. 1 seeds and three No. 2s have been eliminated — and now so has Princeton (23-9), the only team with a double-digit seed to reach the second weekend of the event. Fans of the underdog can turn a rooting eye toward No. 9 Florida Atlantic.

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Creighton’s size in the paint (7-foot-1 Ryan Kalkbrenner) and a sharpshooting guard (Baylor Scheierman, who made 5 of 7 attempts from beyond the arc on his way to 21 points) proved to be too much for the Tigers.

Creighton’s four-point halftime quickly swelled, starting with Kalkbrenner’s five points in the first two minutes after the break. When the Bluejays’ lead grew to 16, Princeton rallied with an eight-point burst, but the Tigers were never able to trim the margin to a single possession. They had Creighton’s lead down to seven with three minutes to go, but Kalkbrenner, towering over his defenders, made an easy basket, just as he had all evening, to pad his team’s cushion.

“We had seen great size and length against Arizona,” Princeton Coach Mitch Henderson said, referencing his team’s first-round matchup. “But we haven’t seen Kalkbrenner’s agility and the speed. ... I thought he was the key.”

Princeton’s 6-foot-8 forward Tosan Evbuomwan had a formidable challenge in checking Kalkbrenner, who has the second-best field goal percentage in Division I. Kalkbrenner finished with 22 points on 9-for-12 shooting. But Evbuomwan, who led the Ivy League in assists this season, also delivered an impressive performance. The senior from England had 24 points and nine assists, but beyond Ryan Langborg (a game-high 26 points), the Tigers didn’t have balanced production to keep pace with Creighton. The Bluejays had four players with at least 10 points.

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Princeton built a narrow lead late in the first half, but Creighton pushed ahead for good with a 10-0 run. Henderson called the final minutes of the first half a “crucial” swing in Creighton’s favor, and after that, his team “couldn’t get back into the game.”

The Bluejays had a 47-43 edge by halftime, and they kept rolling while Princeton’s offensive rhythm waned. Creighton shot 53.8 percent from the field in the second half, while the Tigers’ clip dipped to 39.3 percent.

Princeton’s run meant a No. 15 seed had reached the Sweet 16 in three consecutive years, joining Oral Roberts in 2021 and St. Peter’s last season. Henderson said he doesn’t think “seeds matter as much as they used to.” His players know some of their opponents from AAU circuits, and so, “there’s no fear.” The Tigers, labeled as underdogs, were not overwhelmed by the tournament stage.

The Tigers reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1967, and before this breakthrough, the Tigers hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 1998. Henderson, the coach who guided the Tigers even further this time, was a senior on that team.

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Princeton’s campus has “stars galore,” Henderson said, citing economics and chemistry professors as examples. This week, Henderson’s players ascended to a level of celebrity to match. Evbuomwan received a standing ovation at a restaurant in Princeton, and the team talked to Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) via FaceTime. Those are the moments that arise when an NCAA tournament upset turns into an NCAA tournament run.

“Each team has a special life to live in the tournament,” Henderson said.

Princeton’s tournament life lasted three games, more than just about anyone expected. Henderson substituted out his starters in the game’s final minute, with the win well out of reach. They had brought the Tigers this far, and by the time the final buzzer sounded, both fan bases applauded.