Princeton’s stirring comeback win over Columbia Friday night, when the Tigers unleashed a 51-point second half avalanche, thrilled the announced crowd of 35 fans. Word quickly spread that something special was unfolding in Jadwin Gym. Another seven of the Tiger faithful showed up for Saturday night’s welcome home party for favorite son and Cornell coach Brian Earl.
They saw something special.
Sophomore Matt Allocco, playing in his first season, was tabbed by coach Mitch Henderson to fill the starting role usually occupied by senior captain Jaelin Llewellyn. Llewellyn’s status is day-to-day as he recovers from an apparent hamstring sprain suffered Friday night.
To report that Allocco made the most of his first career start is to engage in reckless understatement.
His 45-foot three-point bomb as time expired, launched in a do-or-die situation, brought the Tigers back from a second-half deficit that reached 18 to a most improbable 72-70 win. And he did it on his birthday! Nothing like this has happened in Tiger basketball since Doug Davis made history against Harvard with a buzzer-beater to win the Ivy League playoff against Harvard 11 years ago.
The Big Red arrived in Princeton still smarting from their late-game demise the previous evening at the Palestra. Brian Earl’s club has held its own against his alma mater, splitting the last six contests. They were determined to get back on track.
For most of the game, and all of the first half, Cornell ran its uptempo style while freely substituting two and three players at a time to control the proceedings. The Big Red profited from another cold-shooting start by the Tiger marksmen, just as did the Lions on Friday night.
Allocco made the first two buckets for Princeton, but after seven minutes, the Tigers trailed, 10-4.
Cornell steadily added to its lead. Fortunately for Princeton, senior Drew Friberg kept his club within striking distance. His seven first-half tallies, including a three-pointer, drew the Tigers within four at 24-20 with seven minutes to go in the first period.
To Henderson’s chagrin, the Big Red closed out the half on a 10-2 run over the final four minutes giving Cornell a 39-25 lead at the break. Princeton’s two points came on two Tosan Evbuomwan free throws, his only points of the half.
Ethan Wright, the third member of Princeton’s Big Three, was held scoreless. Clearly, Llewellyn’s absence was the biggest obstacle hindering the Tigers.
As the second half opened, Tiger hopes for a comeback fueled by an offensive explosion, as happened the previous evening, were quickly dispelled. Things got worse before they got better. After four minutes, the Cornell lead ballooned to 18 at 47-29. The Tigers without Jaelin appeared particularly ill-suited to climb this mountain.
Enter Mr. Friberg. Two three-pointers from the State College, Pa. product cut the Cornell lead to 12, 47-35, with 14 minutes remaining. Two minutes later, an Allocco jumper made it an 11-point game.
Cornell guard Saru Patel’s long three extended the lead back to 14 before Ethan Wright finally scored with under 11 minutes left. Wright’s “and one” kept the lead at 11, 53-42.
Friberg canned another three. 53-45.
Once again, the Big Red rallied. With 9:23 to go the nation’s leading three-point shooter, Keller Boothby, did his thing. Cornell 58, Princeton 47. The clouds over Jadwin were darkening.
Three minutes later, Allocco, the birthday boy, stepped up with a three of his own to allow his team to claw within six, 60-54. Allocco scored again a minute later to keep the Tigers within range, 62-56.
After another hoop by the pesky Patel, Ryan Langborg hit on a deep bomb to make it a five-point game at the 4:32 mark.
Tosan scores in close after corralling an offensive rebound. 64-61, 3:50.
Cornell turned the ball over on the next possession setting the stage for a timely Wright three pointer to tie the score for the first time since the start of the game. With or without Llewellyn, this team has a ton of grit and guts.
So do the Big Red. At the 2:36 mark, a Nazir Williams bucket put Cornell on top, 66-64.
A Wright steal set up Evbuomwan to tie it again. 66-66, 1:42.
Finally, after 39 minutes, Evbuomwan made one of two free throws to give Princeton its first lead of the ball game, 67-66. with 1:08 to play.
The lead lasted 27 seconds. A Chris Manon layup put Cornell up again, 68-67. with 41 ticks left.
Back came the Tigers. Wright calmly sank two from the charity stripe: 69-68 Princeton, 23 seconds to go.
It appeared that Cornell would run the clock down to attempt the last shot with little or no time remaining. Dean Noll, a product of the same high school as Earl and, like his coach, a hard-nosed player, slashed between two defenders to score the go-ahead layup with six seconds remaining.
Alas, it was enough time for the Tigers. Eschewing a timeout, the Tigers inbounded to Langborg, who found Allocco just across mid-court. The timing of the shot was close enough for a review by the officials. Suspense mounted. ESPN+ color man and former Tiger captain Noah Savage determined that the shot was in the air before the buzzer sounded. He was right and the Tigers snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Bedlam ensued among the 41 remaining fans. One guy had left when the second half Cornell lead reached 18.
Both teams had heroes. Cornell had four players, Patel, Manon, Boothby and Noll, in double figures.
Drew Friberg’s contributions stood out for the Tigers. The senior pitched in a game-high 16 points, including four threes, along with eight rebounds and three assists. Evbuomwan posted 15 points, 13 in the second half, along with eight caroms and a remarkable five assists. Langborg’s 11 points included three buckets from beyond the arc.
But this game belongs forever to Matt Allocco.
In his postgame interview on ESPN+, the Hilliard, Ohio native minimized his efforts, sincerely calling this a team win and concluding that the win was the most important thing. Nevertheless, his 14 points on 6-for-9 shooting from the field (including 2-for-3 from deep), along with four rebounds would make this a memorable first career start even if he had not canned the game-winner. Of course, he did, and now he’s in the history books.
The Tigers entertain Brown on Saturday and Penn on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, next Monday at 4 p.m. Both games can be seen on ESPN+.