No. 15 Princeton claws past No. 2 Arizona in NCAA Tournament win for the ages

A paltry 4-for-25 from three-point range.

Just three points from the foul line.

A major size disadvantage against the No. 10 KenPom team in the country 2,800 miles from home.

None of it stopped No. 15 Princeton from stunning No. 2 Arizona at the Golden1 Center in Sacramento, Calif. Thursday to advance to the NCAA Tournament Round of 32 in a winning effort for the ages.

The Tigers (22-8, 10-4 Ivy) got it done with defense, holding Arizona (28-7, 14-6) scoreless in the final 4:43 to finish on a 9-0 run catapulting them into a matchup with No. 7 Missouri (25-9, 11-7 SEC) Saturday at 6:10 p.m. ET.

Princeton masterfully kept Arizona from transition opportunities, controlling the tempo from the outset and denying 6-foot-11 All-Pac-12 first-team forward Azuolas Tubelis inside.

After trailing 31-30 at halftime, the Tigers fell behind 47-35 with 11:46 to play.

Then Princeton dug in, holding the Wildcats to 4-for-16 shooting and six turnovers the rest of the way.

The Wildcats, winners of the Pac-12 Tournament, were 16-point favorites, but the Tigers didn’t look like underdogs. They outmuscled Arizona on the boards, 39-37, including 10 offensive rebounds, and blocked six Arizona shots, none bigger than Ryan Langborg’s picture-perfect swat with 50 seconds left in the game and Princeton holding onto a one-point lead, 56-55.

Speaking of Langborg, the senior guard from San Diego made play after play down the stretch to will the Tigers to the victory. He hit a jump shot with 3:41 to play to bring the Tigers within one point of Arizona, 55-54.  Then he drove the lane and laid the ball in off the glass to give Princeton its first lead of the game with 2:03 remaining.  A minute and change later, he elevated to block senior guard Courtney Ramey’s jumper from the baseline to prevent the Wildcats from taking back the lead.

Langborg went 0-for-6 from behind the arc, but he was perfect in every other way in what goes down in history as the biggest upset by seeding in Ivy men’s hoops history since the modern NCAA Tournament format was adopted in 1985.

There were plenty of other heroes for the Tigers. Junior forward Zach Martini and sophomore guard Blake Peters came in as substitutes to provide 16 points off the bench for Princeton.  Arizona’s entire bench contributed only seven points.

Two-time All-Ivy first-teamer Tosan Evbuowman did what he always does – score points (15), dish out assists (four), and grab rebounds (seven).  All but the latter were team highs.

Caden Pierce, the Ivy Rookie of the Year from Glen Ellyn, Ill., grabbed a game-high eight rebounds and calmly drained two free throws to give the Tigers a critical three-point cushion with 21 ticks remaining on the clock.

They were the biggest free throws of the season (and the millennium so far) for Princeton, and they came from a first-year player shooting only 64.9% from the charity stripe this season.

During the Ivy League Tournament final postgame press conference last weekend, Matt Allocco, the heart and soul of this Princeton squad, described Pierce as a pure winner. He’s right about that, but the same can be said about Allocco. The junior guard from Hilliard, Ohio scored six points, grabbed three rebounds, and assisted twice for the Tigers. Most importantly, he quarterbacked the team through thick and thin and played with a calm yet determined demeanor from beginning to end.

Finally, senior forward Keeshawn Kellman was a big hero tonight. In some ways, he had had the hardest assignment of any Tiger, having to guard Arizona’s 7-foot center, Oumar Ballo, who was named to the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Center of the Year Award Preseason Top 20 watch list. At 6-foot-9, Kellman was at a distinct disadvantage, yet he blocked Ballo twice and contributed eight points on the offensive end, and grabbed four rebounds.

The Tigers accomplished this monumental upset with a terrifically balanced effort. Princeton’s first 10 points of the game were scored in succession by each of the five starters, one basket at a time.

It’s a testament to this team’s toughness and resilience that it won this game despite a night of shooting from behind the arc. The Tigers also had to overcome some questionable refereeing down the stretch. In what could have been the defining sequence of the game, the officials called two consecutive yet questionable charging calls on Evbuowman in the second half that both negated much-needed baskets by the senior forward from Newcastle, England.

The crowd responded with a lusty chorus of boos to the second call, the more egregious of the two.

Princeton coach Mitch Henderson was none too pleased with the calls, either. But the Tigers refused to give in to the pressure of the situation and doubled down on defense to prevent Arizona from capitalizing on the opportunities gifted by the stripes.

In the end, it was Princeton’s stubborn defense that won the day for the Tigers.  In addition to outrebounding the Wildcats, the Tigers outblocked Arizona six-to-one and snatched the ball away eight times compared to only five steals by Arizona.  Overall, Princeton held the No. 4 scoring team in the nation to 55 points, far below Arizona’s average of 82.7 points per game.

Henderson has now beaten UCLA as a player (1996), and USC (2017), Arizona State (2018), Oregon State (2021) and Arizona (2023) as a coach. With USC and UCLA bolting to the Big Ten Conference, Princeton Athletics may want to consider joining the beleaguered Pac-12.  At the very least, the Tigers should consider scheduling as many future games as possible in the Pacific Time Zone.

Meanwhile, Princeton will advance to the Round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998. When Henderson’s squad faces Missouri Saturday, at least one streak of Tigers is bound to extend a win streak in Sacramento, where Princeton coaching legend Pete Carril was an assistant coach for the NBA’s Kings for a decade after stepping down at Princeton. The Orange and Black are playing with house money and for a chance to advance to the Sweet 16.

Princeton’s win marks the Ivy League’s fourth in its last nine NCAA Tournament appearances.