SACRAMENTO, Calif. — As chants of “Sweet 16! Sweet 16!” Cascading through the Golden 1 Center from a corner of the building on Saturday, Kobe Brown pulled out his Missouri jersey and headed for the locker room. Noah Carter followed, raised his left hand and waved at the crowd. DeAndre Gholston grabbed the basketball and threw a final jab at the rim. Nick Honor lifted his jersey above his head, wiping away the tears that follow every season’s final buzzer.
Those chants were for the writers of March’s final Cinderella story, the No. 15 seed Princeton Tigers, who lived to see another weekend of March Madness with a 78-63 win. But every fairy tale finish comes at a cost to someone – and that someone on Saturday was Mizzou.
Oh, March madness. A team that has embraced its underdog role all season, Dennis Gates’ Tigers arrived in California this week undefeated as betting favorites, but this time stumbled as major heavyweights. Princeton, meanwhile, had to beat top-seeded Yale in Sunday’s Ivy League tournament to even make the Big Dance, then surprised second-seeded Arizona to set up Saturday’s game. In its third game in six days, a Princeton team that has lost regular season games to Delaware, Navy, Brown and Dartmouth, overwhelmingly outplayed No. 7 seed Mizzou in all aspects of the game to clinch its first Sweet 16 appearance in 56 years.
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How thorough? Princeton’s 15-point winning margin was the largest in tournament history for a No. 15 seed. It was Mizzou’s 51st all-time game in the NCAA Tournament and tied for his third worst margin of defeat.
Did Princeton (23-8) have the best team or the best season heading into Saturday’s kickoff? Few people could say yes. But the Ivy Leaguers played the game far superior, leading Mizzou (25-10) on the scoreboard for nearly 38 minutes.
“We managed to take the lead once,” Mizzou coach Dennis Gates said. “We held a 30-second lead the whole game. Every time we took the lead or when they had the lead, we reduced it to six, they came back and did what a good team would do: take a shot or make a play.
“It just wasn’t our day to make those plays or make the same shots.”
Princeton also exploited two of Mizzou’s weaknesses throughout the season that surfaced in the worst moments: rebounding and 3-point defense. Mitch Henderson’s side topped the glass 44-30 and edged United on second-chance points 19-2. Two days after smothering Utah State from the perimeter, Mizzou let Princeton run their half-court offense with maximum precision. The New Jersey underdogs consistently created open looks from 3-point range, connecting on 12 of 33 shots from deep. Reserve guard Blake Peters, the grandson of two Mizzou graduates, torched his grandparents’ alma mater with five 3s and tied his career high with 17 points. Ryan Langborg was Princeton’s deadliest threat, finishing with a game-high 22 points.
Caden Pierce of Princeton, a 6-6 freshman, grabbed 16 rebounds on his own, including seven offensive rebounds. Ivy League Player of the Year Tosan Evbuomwan scored just nine points but led quarterback Henderson’s offense from the frontcourt with five assists.
“I would say it was the complete opposite of Utah State,” Honor said. “Rebounds and 3s when it came to that. It’s a hell of a team. »
“Honestly, we let them do what they do best, lead their offense, the Princeton offense,” Brown added. “They had a lot of hard shots but also a lot of open shots. It was our fault. We let them do what they wanted to do and that was a real game-changer.
At the other end of the field, Mizzou’s offense stalled from the start as Princeton obstructed the traffic lanes, forcing the Tigers to settle for jumpers who rarely fell. Gates’ side shot just 6 of 22 from behind the arc and weren’t much better near the edge, missing 10 lay-ups. Officials barely blew their whistles when Mizzou had the ball, calling just nine Princeton fouls. When bodies collided in the paint – or in the case of D’Moi Hodge, when his skull crashed into the field early in the second half – the team constantly let the action unfold. unroll. As a result, Mizzou attempted seven free throws, the lowest of the season.
“They keep their bodies in front of their guys,” Henderson said of his defenders. “Good old-fashioned, hard-nosed defense.”
Brown, who finished with 12 points, credited Princeton’s high defense for blocking his vision through the barrage of double teams in the post. Princeton kept a defender glued to Hodge all night, holding him to a season-low two points in their final college game.
Mizzou missed 10 of 11 shots midway through the first half, without a goal for more than three minutes before a well-deserved timeout. Gates switched to a zone defense on a late possession, but Langborg ran through the Tigers for a 31-19 lead.
Mizzou ended the half with a jolt. Honor broke the shot clock with a 3-point corner, then on the final half possession, Sean East II sank a baseline jumper at the last buzzer, cutting Princeton’s lead to 33- 26 at the break.
“We were in high spirits (at halftime),” Brown said. “We were trying to encourage each other, to show each other what we were doing wrong. I wouldn’t say we were overconfident because obviously we lost the whole game.
Mizzou got within five points of the lead with a quick bucket from Brown to open the second half, but Princeton came back with a decisive 7-0 run. In the process, Mizzou lost Hodge when he flew to the rim for an offensive rebound, but hit the back of his head on the ground while landing. With 16:48 left in the half, Hodge headed to the bench where he remained until 9:25.
By then, Princeton had taken full control. Peters’ 3-pointer with 9:37 left pushed Princeton ahead by 10 – and the Tigers led by double digits the rest of the way.
“They’re avid Tiger fans,” Peters said of his grandparents, Russell and Gail Smith, who graduated from Mizzou in the 1960s. “But I know they were cheering on their grandson today. That’s what makes things like this so special is doing it in front of your family here, watching at home, I hope they’re proud of me.
Peters and the rest of the brave group from Princeton now head to Louisville, where they will represent the Ivy League in Friday’s Sweet 16 game against the winner of Sunday’s Baylor-Creighton game. The last time Princeton was in the group’s Round of 16 was in 1967 – just two years after Missouri’s Bill Bradley adapted to Princeton.
For the other Tigers, Saturday’s season finale officially sent Gates to the offseason. He sat on the postgame stand alongside his four players whose college eligibility expired with Saturday’s loss: Hodge, DeAndre Gholston (19 points) and the team captains Ben Sternberg and Tre Gomillion, whose groin injury sidelined him for United’s four post-season games. . Brown, coming off his best college season by far, could choose to turn pro or use his final season of eligibility. Others too will have decisions to make, although grassroots veterans like Honor, Carter and East plan to return for their final college season.
“Right now I just want to cry with my teammates, especially the four who are ineligible,” Brown said. “During the offseason, Coach Gates and I are going to sit down and have these conversations when we’re ready.”
“We weren’t supposed to be here at all in the first place,” Gomillion said, eyes red from the tears that spilled into the locker room. “We weren’t supposed to make it to the SEC semifinals. I mean, at the end of the day, we lost…but we have a lot to be proud of.
In his last minute on the sidelines as a college player, Gomillion showed why he was a beloved teammate and hailed by staff as a future coach. As the seconds ticked away, he approached Gates with a suggestion: Put Sternberg in the game. On cue, Gates motioned his walk-on to check in for the final 26 seconds of the season.
The shutdown quickly followed a season that few could have seen coming, but an end that undoubtedly came.