Princeton “absolutely fearless” in Missouri; goes to Sweet 16


SACRAMENTO — For the second straight NCAA men’s basketball tournament, a No. 15 seed from New Jersey has magicked and bludgeoned his way to the Sweet 16. Just as St. Peter’s went from cute to dangerous in record time last year, Princeton now stands as more than a great story. It is a threat to perpetuate this disruption.

A first-round commotion from second-placed Arizona wasn’t messy enough. Princeton blew out No. 7 Missouri, 78-63, at the Golden 1 Center on Saturday to advance to a South Region semifinals in Louisville next week. And let’s get straight to it: the winner of Baylor-Creighton gets a headache. These Tigers can play with either team.

They are tall and athletic, agile and tough, and gifted with the ingenuity to win in many different ways. Don’t just categorize them as hard offs. They’re locked to the max and it wouldn’t be surprising if they took on the St. Peter’s Run and made it into the Elite Eight.

Nothing went according to plan for Princeton – except for an upset for Arizona

“They play absolutely fearless,” said Princeton coach Mitch Henderson.

With guard Ryan Langborg spurting three-pointers and hitting hard and finishing through contact on the rim, Princeton tore apart Missouri’s full-court pressure defense. It was a thorough dissection. Missouri had the lead for just 32 seconds in that game. The rest of the time, Princeton forward Tosan Evbuomwan controlled the game without scoring much, and his teammates attacked every Missouri weakness.

Princeton managed to beat Arizona with his “C” game, but this time the Tigers were sharp. And right now, their best rivals almost everyone.

“The world sees us as two surprises,” said Evbuomwan, who had nine points, nine rebounds and five assists. “But I feel like we should be here. We have a lot of confidence in what we do. There is definitely no let-up with this group.”

The Tigers played with the swagger of a team that belonged. After one of their more ragged performances of the season, they were determined to put some beauty into their determination.

Langborg dominated the game early, softening Missouri’s defense with skillful shots. He scored 11 of Princeton’s first 13 points. The San Diego senior guard missed all six of his three-point attempts against Arizona. On Saturday he made three long jumps early in the morning. He scored 15 of his 22 points before halftime.

“In the last game, none of us really shot,” said Langborg. “Seeing the ball go through the net is always a great way to start the game.”

Said Langborg’s Henderson: “This guy on my right wasn’t named to any All-League team at all, wasn’t elected to any and he was the best player on the floor. If you want to argue, I’m more than willing to argue with anyone in here.”

Princeton owned the first half. Missouri shot 11 of 30 from the field, failing to protect his versatile opponent, who often used the 6-foot-8 Evbuomwan’s versatility to break the press and create open chances for his teammates. With Missouri defenders on tight watch, Princeton players blew past them for dunks and layups. Princeton, with taller and more athletic post players, took advantage of Missouri’s rebound weakness.

Towards the end of the first half, Princeton led 33-19 and threatened to turn the game into a blowout. But Missouri scored seven straight points in the last two minutes of the half to make the deficit manageable at the break.

However, Princeton was not finished. The Tigers only made 4 of 25 three-pointers against Arizona. On Saturday they were 12 of 33. Langborg set the tone and Blake Peters was the closer. As Missouri tried to collect, Peters made five threes and scored all of his 17 second-half points.

For Missouri, it was the worrying matchup that coach Dennis Gates expected.

When asked about Princeton’s underdog status as number 15 on Friday, Gates balked at the characterization.

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“My thoughts are simple: you’re not in this tournament unless you’re a great team,” Gates said.

He later added, “We don’t look at the seeding. We don’t consider anything with a number before or after the institution name. You have earned your right. You have earned your right. They are a good ball team.”

Princeton (23-8) is shaping up to be a great team. Watching the Tigers, it’s hard to imagine how they’ve lost eight games this season. They’ve taken all their ups and downs and climaxed at the perfect time. Cornell was the last Ivy League school to make the Sweet 16, which made it in 2010. In the second week of the tournament, Princeton can dream of the Final Four. The last Ivy League school to do that was Penn in 1979.

It doesn’t seem like such a crazy fantasy, not if Princeton can dominate the boards, drill step-back three-pointers and finish over the edge.

“Yeah, we’re going to Sweet 16,” Henderson said. “But this is a really unique group. I think in the tournament every group has a special life. This one has a very special life.”

It’s another New Jersey team terrifying the field. In the last two tournaments, St. Peter’s and Princeton have caused a stir as the No. 15 seed. And Farleigh Dickinson just became the second No.16 to triumph.

“I guess there’s something in the water,” Langborg said, smiling. “Something helps us.”

There’s no luck involved. Princeton has become really good. Forget Cinderella. The tigers know they’re worth it.

At halftime, with Princeton upset at giving up the last seven points and allowing Missouri to sneak back into the game, Henderson turned to his players. He said to be herself. That’s all he wanted. He knew it would be enough.

“I said, ‘You know, we’re definitely going to get on that flight. When we get on that plane, we’ll be us,” recalled Henderson, who was a player when Princeton advanced to the second round in 1996 and 1998. “We felt like the best version of us could beat the best version of them.”

The best version of Princeton left Missouri confused. The rest of the field should be careful. The tigers are real. Princeton “absolutely fearless” in Missouri; goes to Sweet 16

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