Most Tiger fans viewed Thursday night’s contest with the visiting Liberty Flames as little more than a warmup for Saturday’s collision with No. 6 Maryland in Baltimore. This was especially the case after last season’s blowout at Carril Court, which preceded wholesale changes in the basketball staff.
Princeton coach Mitch Henderson knew better: “Ritchie McKay has won everywhere he’s coached, including his first stint at Liberty. This is a very young team (youngest in D1 actually) and they look much different now than they did just a month ago.” McKay coached the Flames for two seasons before joining Tony Bennett’s staff as associate head coach at Virginia. With the program floundering, McKay, whose daughter is a student at Liberty, was asked to return. His starters are all freshmen and sophomores.
Liberty got off to a good start behind the hot shooting of John Dawson and the 6’10” sophomore center, Evan Maxwell, from Clarks Summit, Pa. They managed to keep The Flames ahead for most of the first half. Yet another productive night from Henry Caruso kept the Tigers close. His 17 first-half tallies enabled the Tigers to surge into the lead, 38-34, at intermission. Six lead changes in the half convinced most onlookers that The Flames were in this one to stay. Only some sloppy ball handling (the Tigers scored eight points off turnovers) prevented Liberty from establishing control.
The second half was played evenly by both squads. The Tigers never trailed, although Liberty overcame a seven-point deficit to tie the score at 56 just under the nine-minute mark. Foul trouble plagued the young Flames throughout the contest, probably costing the visitors their chance for an improbable win far from home. The Tigers went to the line 39 times, making 28 (72 percent) to Liberty’s 8-for-13. To their credit, The Flames outshot the Tigers, making 28 field goals to Princeton’s 23. From beyond the arc, Liberty went a respectable 8-for-20, while Princeton managed a disappointing 3-for-16. Even more surprisingly, the visitors outrebounded the Tigers, 29-27. The final score was 77-72.
Maxwell, who failed to score in a brief appearance here last season, has clearly benefited from the change in coaching. Coming casino in to the game, he has been the team scoring and rebounding leader. He did himself proud before several family members and friends, who braved rush hour on Route 206 to attend the game. (ToothlessTiger also resides in Clarks Summit. He found himself urging the hometown kid on, as unobtrusively as possible). Maxwell had 22 points on 9-for-13 from the field, mostly on contested looks at the basket. His eight rebounds helped the Flames stay close all the way.
Once again, Henry Caruso turned in a superlative performance for Princeton. On a night when much of the offense was misfiring, the Tigers turned to Caruso as the first, and often, only option. He responded with 29 points on 10-for-14 shooting and eight free throws. His nine caroms left him one short of a double-double but led the Tigers. Pete Miller turned in another workmanlike effort with 12 points and seven rebounds. Amir Bell had some spectacular passes through traffic to find Miller at the backboard for easy layups.
A huge highlight for the Tigers was the contribution from two freshmen off the bench. Myles Stephens and Devin Cannady. They combined to shoot 12-for-13 from the free throw line, most of which came down the stretch.
The Tigers are realistic about Saturday but are clearly looking forward to the opportunity to play in a game that will receive national exposure (Big Ten Network, 7:00 pm EST)