The much anticipated debut of freshman Jaelin Llewellyn at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 9 lifted the spirits of Tiger fans somewhat. A solid win against Iona on a neutral court, featuring another star turn by Llewellyn, pushed the expectations meter upward. Except the Duke Blue Devils were next on the schedule. The loss was anticipated; the 51-point annihilation was not. Princeton coach Mitch Henderson was concerned that such a beating might inflict lasting psychological damage.
When the Tigers escaped Lafayette three nights later with a narrow win, a month after Penn had defeated the Leopards by 30, Henderson’s concern was hardly relieved. Injuries continued to mount. Myles Stephens, Devin Cannady and Llewellyn were all helped from the court in Easton, although all thankfully returned to the game.
Then Princeton’s final out-of-conference opponent, the Arizona State Sun Devils, defeated No. 1 Kansas in Tempe. Could the Tigers’ prospects get any worse? Yes, they could.
Myles Stephens was not in uniform when the Tigers took the floor against ASU. The knee tweaked in Easton, already somewhat weakened, had not responded to the point that Henderson dare risk further injury to his All-Ivy senior captain and former Ivy Defensive Player of the Year. If the Tigers were to compete against the Sun Devils, sophomores Jerome Desrosiers and Sebastian Much, neither of whom had contributed significantly this season, would have to step up big time.
History offered some hope. The Tigers won their last matchup against a Pac-12 foe, USC, in Dec. 2017. Princeton’s last win over a top 20 team was also against a Pac-12 team, UCLA, in the 1996 NCAA Tournament. Tiger skipper Mitch Henderson was a key member of that squad. While the betting line was moving Princeton’s way at tip off, it suggested a narrower loss than originally expected, but a loss nonetheless.
The Tigers, as they often do, got off to a decent start, keeping the 10,000 ASU fans in attendance rather muted. Desrosiers replaced Stephens in the starting lineup. The Tigers’ warrior was hardly missed. At the 11-minute mark the Tigers achieved a 13-5 lead. The Sun Devils would tie the score twice in the first half, but late threes by Cannady and Desrosiers closed the period with the Tigers on the long end of a 37-30 score.
Holding the explosive Sun Devils to a 30-point half marked a defensive high point for the Tigers, just what Henderson hoped to get from what appeared to be an overmatched team. Any worries about lingering psychological effects from Durham were wonderfully erased. On offense, Desrosiers more than exceeded reasonable expectations. In 15 minutes of action, he had 12 points, including three very critical bombs from beyond the arc. Cannady and Richmond Aririguzoh added eight points each. RA was a perfect 4-for-4 from the free-throw line. Remember that.
A quick Cannady three got the Tigers rolling in the second half, extending the lead to 10. Clearly, the Tigers intended to stay in this one to the end. Gradually, the Sun Devils crept closer, obviously resentful of the efforts of the plucky east coast underdogs. At the 12:36 mark, ASU reclaimed the lead, 45-44. Two Desrosiers free throws and a Cannady three restored order temporarily.
Once again, the Sun Devils, slowly but inexorably, stalked the Tigers over the next five minutes. With 7:43 to go, ASU moved into the lead, 57-54. The Tigers, having hung in for more than three quarters of the game, were now expected to fulfill their lovable underdog role, heading home a valiant, but inevitable loser. Cannady, of course, answered with a script-defying three, leaving an exasperated Bobby Hurley wondering if his team got the memo on defending the Tiger leader.
Two baskets by the Sun Devils’ leading scorer, Remy Martin propelled his club into another four-point lead, 61-57, with 5:43 left. We mentioned above that Henderson needed both Desrosiers and Sebastian Much to step up. Sebastian’s turn was now at hand.
After a 30-second Tiger timeout, Princeton had difficulty getting a good look. Cannady had the ball as the shot clock was about to expire. With no shot available, he made a behind-the-back flip to Much, who caught and shot in one motion. When the three-pointer swished, the bench exploded. Did he get it off in time? A lengthy review kept the issue in doubt for several minutes. A decision in favor of the Tigers ignited another bench explosion. You can expect to see this sequence in the Tiger highlight film for a long time.
An ASU free throw gave the home team a two-point lead. Much found an opening to the lane. A tough layup once again tied the score. Two more Sun Devil free throws restored the two-point margin. A Tiger miss gave the home team possession, but a huge defensive rebound by Cannady kept this a one-possession affair. Llewellyn then assisted on another Much three-pointer, giving the Californian eight points in two and a half minutes!
ASU claimed its final lead, 66-65, with two minutes on the clock. It would be a wild two minutes indeed.
Desrosiers rebounded a Llewellyn missed three at 1:39. Llewellyn was then fouled but missed both. After an ASU miss Desrosiers grabbed another rebound at the 48-second mark. Henderson called timeout to set up a play. The Tigers found RA in the paint, where he was fouled with 25 seconds left.
In truth, RA was barely adequate from the line in his first two seasons, going 17 of 38. But coming into Tempe this season, he had made 43 of 56. That is what hard work will do for you.
Under the most pressure he has experienced in his career, the unflappable physician-to-be calmly canned both, capping a 9 of 10 effort for the game. Tigers 67-66.
But the night was not over. Somehow, the Sun devils managed three shots in their last possession, including a desperation buzzer-beater. When it fell to the floor, the stunned crowd absorbed the scene of the second shocking upset at Wells Fargo Arena in a week.
Cannady’s 21 points, including five threes, was high for the Tigers. Desrosiers set career marks for minutes (34), rebounds (nine) and points (16). Much and RA also scored in double figures (13).
Princeton won this game from beyond the arc, canning 10 bombs to just two for the Sun Devils.
On Saturday, the Tigers open the Ivy season against Penn, who are reeling from a pasting by the Toledo Mud Hens. The Quakers have some injury issues of their own. First, Ryan Betley was lost for the season. Max Rothschild has not played recently due to a back problem. And super freshman Michael Wang went down against Toledo with what appears to be a severe ankle injury. But the Tigers had better be wary of an injured foe … just ask the Sun Devils.