Princeton splits two nail-biters in first two games of Diamond Head Classic

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.

1 thought on “Princeton splits two nail-biters in first two games of Diamond Head Classic”

  1. The two opening games in the Diamond Head Classic were mirror-image opposites. In the first game, Princeton led Middle Tennessee most of the way and at half by 5 before getting beaten by a great shot at the buzzer that was well defended. In the second game, Princeton’s opponent, Akron, led most of the game and at half by 7 before getting beat by an incredible Myles Stephens buzzer-beater. Overall, the symmetry seemed about right. We played great in both games, both opponents were tough, both games could have gone either way, and we won one and lost one. I like the way it worked out since playing USC again so soon would have seemed strange and potentially deflating. This way, the signature win over USC stands undisturbed, as it should. Overall, the two games n Hawaii have further polished and prepared a squad that looks primed to defend its Ivy crown. There’s a lot to like about this team, but I especially appreciate how tough our guys are playing. Yesterday, against Akron, Myles Stephens took an elbow to the jaw that was called a flagrant 1. Stephens shook it off, made a free throw and then made a strong drive to the hoop to draw more free throws. I thought that was a key moment that triggered a comeback victory against a quality opponent. I agree with Toothless that the bench is making very significant contributions, especially Aaron Young, who continues to hit big 3’s late and play very tough defense. In fact, the defense really seems like the key right now. In the past several games, our guys have played with a lot of intensity. We’re rebounding well and not giving up as many wide open threes as earlier in the season. Also, it’s been a lot of fun to see Sebastian Much develop in just a matter of weeks into a high impact player. At this rate, he looks like a favorite for Ivy Rookie of the Year. This team is a joy to watch right now.

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