LOUISVILLE — A Kentucky kid by way of Indiana, Mitch Henderson was on his campus visit to Princeton in 1992 when Christian Laettner’s legendary turnaround jumper beat the buzzer and the Wildcats.
Then a Lexington resident transplanted from Vincennes, Ind., Henderson already knew a thing or two about beating Kentucky.
“I went to Rick Pitino’s basketball camp when I was a freshman and sophomore. He would play one-on-one with all the campers and talk so much trash,” Henderson said Thursday, recounting a childhood upbringing all about basketball. “If you beat him — he was really good, he was probably in his late 30s at the time. He had to score three points. And all you had to do was stop him and score once and then you got a shirt that says, “I beat Rick Pitino in one-on-one,” and I got one of those shirts.”
If he was an underdog then, the 47-year-old Henderson must be now. The No. 15 Princeton Tigers are in Kentucky needing to double their two wins in the 2023 NCAA Tournament to reach the Final Four in Houston. First up is No. 6 Creighton on Friday night.
Henderson and his family arrived in Kentucky in 1990, coinciding with Pitino and Kentucky’s rise as national title contenders. The coaching staff at the time included assistant coaches Tubby Smith and Ralph Willard. And then there was the Tates Creek Junior High hoops squad. Henderson and his teammates were oblivious to the path they were taking, but it’s hard to resist the irony in retrospect.
“My junior high basketball team was me, Kevin Willard, and G.G. Smith, who are all Division I head coaches, at Tates Creek Junior High. How about that?,” Henderson recalled Thursday, just up the road from Lexington and Tates Creek.
Kevin Willard is Maryland’s head coach, G.G. Smith (Tubby Smith’s son) coached at High Point until he was let go in March and Henderson didn’t even mention another TCJH product: current Western Kentucky coach Darrin Horn was there, too.
Henderson and Willard’s brother, Keith, were key players on a state runner-up in Kentucky and he was drafted by the New York Yankees as an outfielder in the 29th round of the 1991 draft. Instead, Henderson stayed with hoops.
And it doesn’t seem like that long ago to Henderson when he was dropped off at Princeton, where one in five students participate in athletic programs, and felt first-hand the magic of March Madness. Henderson was a guard for the No. 13-seeded Tigers when they upset No. 4 seed UCLA 43-41 in the 1996 NCAA Tournament.
He was an assistant for Princeton coach Bill Carmody from 2000-2011 and now his close up has blended nostalgia with the sense of pride and lasting accomplishment with a new brood of Tigers.
“We followed Saint Peter’s run last year very closely. I just think that each team has, like, a special life to live in the tournament,” Henderson said. “You’re lucky and fortunate if you get a chance — I’ve seen it on the other side as a coach and watched teams forever, but this is — it’s amazing and hard to put into words what it feels like on this end.”
–By Jeff Reynolds, Field Level Media