No. 15 seed Princeton became an instant darling of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, outclassing second-seeded Arizona 59-55 to create one of the most memorable moments in program history.
The Tigers did that while shooting 4 of 25 from 3-point range.
With room to get better, Princeton (22-8) rides momentum when it takes on seventh-seeded Missouri on Saturday in a South region second-round game in Sacramento, Calif.
“We did not shoot the ball very well. That’s what we’ve been,” said Princeton coach Mitch Henderson, who was able to find little fault about everything else in the upset. “We’ve identified toughness in recruiting. These guys are winners. … We are imperfect, but a very, very, very tough group.”
Princeton outrebounded bigger and more talented Arizona by one, had eight more points in the paint and held the Wildcats to their season-low scoring total while showing more hustle and making more plays down the stretch, overcoming a 12-point deficit.
Missouri (25-9) also was great late in its 76-65 first-round win over 10th-seeded Utah State, outscoring the Aggies by 13 in the final 10 minutes. Kobe Brown and D’Moi Hodge combined for 42 points, including 28 in the second half.
Missouri creates offense with defense, forcing turnovers on nearly 15 percent of opponent possessions.
“They really like to speed you up,” Utah State coach Steve Ashworth said. “Their style of defense, what they like to do to teams. At times, even if you’re getting open looks in those situations, you can be a little rushed into those shots.”
Brown, a 6-foot-8, 250-pound forward, averages 15.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, both team highs. He also shoots 45.8 percent from 3-point range (49 of 107). He scored 12 consecutive Missouri points to start the Tigers’ surge midway through the second half.
“He’s our MVP. I can tell you that,” said coach Dennis Gates. “Ultimately when he started making some shots in that second half, he immediately made eye contact. He said he’s here. I said, ‘Yes, you are. We can see.'”
Hodge averages 15.1 points and hits 40.5 percent from behind the arc, also leading the charge on defense with 2.6 steals per game. The Big 12’s Tigers are second nationally with 10.3 steals per game and will have to maintain pressure on the Ivy League’s Tigers, who successfully slowed the pace against the high-tempo Wildcats.
Princeton isn’t big but it outrebounds foes by 6.4 per game. Tosan Evbuomwan (6-8, 219) was a force down low against Arizona with 15 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Evbuomwan puts in a team-high 15.0 points per game. Caden Pierce pulls down a team-best 7.1 rebounds per game.
Now, can Princeton shoot better against a Missouri team that held Utah State to 4 of 24 from behind the arc?
Henderson knows about March magic. He was a player on Princeton’s 1996 team that upset defending national championship UCLA in the first round, an historic moment for legendary coach Pete Carril, who died at 92 last August. The team is wearing a bow-tie patch on their jerseys in his honor.
“I’ve been the beneficiary of that game, along with my teammates, for a long time,” Henderson said after his team beat Arizona. “But I’m the coach here. I’m very present about this. I want that for them. That’s very, very simple. … They made so many people proud and happy today.”
Missouri last went to the Sweet 16 in 2009. The Tigers arrived in Sacramento expecting to see Arizona in the second round. Now the goal of “winning a game in the NCAA Tournament,” as Brown said Thursday, has the chance to balloon to something much bigger for Gates’ crew.
“I actually cried. I’ll be honest with you. My college coach, some of my teammates were here. My family’s here. For me, it was emotional,” Gates said. “Celebration, no such thing. We got to prepare for the next opponent.”
–Field Level Media