The Tigers came into the opener of this Christmas tournament hosted by the University of Hawaii as slight underdogs to the Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee State, winners of games in the last two NCAA tournaments, including a monumental upset over Michigan State in 2016.
In a game the Tigers led by as many as seven and never trailed by more than four, it took a big-time play by the Raiders’ great guard, Giddy Potts, to break the last tie with two seconds to go. The final: Middle Tennessee State 69, Princeton 67.
Once again the Tigers played quite well from the outset, leading 28-23 at the break. This was perhaps as good as the defense has shown over a 20-minute stretch all season. The Raiders are very well-coached, boasting a deep, talented roster, featuring size, strength and speed. They fully expect to make another deep run for Conference USA laurels.
The Tigers shot well (44 percent) and enjoyed another productive night from beyond the arc (9-for-25 36 percent). They more than held their own on the glass with 33 rebounds to the Raiders’ 34. Princeton was substandard from the free throw line, making 14 of 23, with eight of those misses crucially occurring in the second half. This stat sticks out like a sore thumb in a two-point game. Even Devin Cannady missed one.
Cannady, the Tigers’ version of the Iron Horse, played all 40 minutes, leading the team with 16 points. Myles Stephens was held to nine points but there was no stopping him on the glass, where he set a career mark with 12 rebounds. Amir Bell had 11 points and three assists. Rookie Sebastian Much turned in another quality 28 minutes, reaching double-figures with 10 points. His tremendous late-in-the-shot-clock three-pointer with 18 seconds to go gave the Tigers their last tie at 67.
Henderson got excellent contributions from role players off the bench. Aaron Young tallied eight points in 18 minutes. Richmond Aririguzoh was 3-for-3 from the field and had a beautiful back door assist while bringing a ton of energy to the post defense. Senior Mike LeBlanc, the forgotten man lately, was a steady presence at both ends during his 15 minutes of play.
While there are no good losses, this game comes as close as any, certainly the best game the Tigers have played in any of their seven losses. Both of these teams improved their KenPom rankings after this game. The Tigers rose four spots to 123 and the Raiders moved up one spot to 66.
The Tigers played the Akron Zips Saturday in a consolation round game. The Zips were crushed by 31 points in a blowout loss to USC, but Princeton had a tougher time with them, needing a buzzer-beating shot from Stephens to clinch a 64-62 victory.
A Much three gave Princeton a 62-59 advantage in the game’s final minute and notched the game-winning assist with a pass to Stephens for the buzzer-beater.
Much finished in double figures again, while fellow Ryan Schwieger added eight points in 28 minutes off the bench. Bell and Stephens combined for 31 points on 12-for-23 shooting, compensating for Cannady going just 1-for-8 from the floor.
May you all enjoy the blessings of the holiday season.