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You can’t walk around the Princeton men’s basketball facility without seeing the photo.
The image of Mitch Henderson leaping in the air in celebration of one of the most famous upsets in NCAA Tournament history.
Princeton 43, UCLA 41.
“In March, it’s brought up a lot more,” junior guard Matt Allocco said. “We’ve been able to see a couple clips and then the iconic photo of coach Henderson as a player celebrating. We hope to repeat and do the same thing.”
The 27-year anniversary of that game was this week, and Henderson, now the head coach at his alma mater, is hoping to channel the spirit of the late Pete Carril when he takes his No. 15 seed Tigers (21-8) up against No. 2 seed Arizona (28-6) in a first-round game on Thursday in Sacramento.
“A lot less gray, skinnier and off the ground a foot or so,” Henderson quipped when asked about the photo in his day before press conference. “They were talking about making their own memories and that’s my charge. We’re really happy to be here and hopeful to create some of our own memories here that are special for both our university and for the guys.”
It’s fitting that Princeton would be in Sacramento for this game in a season that has not only produced a 26th NCAA Tournament appearance but has also served as a celebration of the late Hall of Fame coach’s life. Carril worked as an assistant coach for the Kings after his long tenure on Old Nassau ended following the 1996 NCAA Tournament.
Those were the Kings teams put together by former Princeton great and Carril pupil Geoff Petrie and featured Jason Williams, Chris Webber, Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic, and came so tantalizingly close to breaking through in a loaded Western Conference. Also in Sacramento this week are UCLA and Northwestern — the school where Henderson got his coaching start under Bill Carmody, the man who followed Carril at Princeton.
“That was a great era and we felt always that passing bigs who sort of shared the ball was a staple of who coach was. We saw that when we watched the Kings play,” Henderson said. “So much of what you see with us, the way we play, is what I’ve learned from Bill Carmody (and) Pete Carril and modernized it.”
That was very much the message Henderson got from Carril when he took over at Princeton.
“Coach said to me when I got the position here, ‘be yourself,’” Henderson said. “He didn’t really say it in a suggestive way, it was more like ‘don’t be me.’ I think what people saw out here with the Kings was a happier, much calmer version of coach Carril than what we experienced. The ’96 season we had lost to Penn eight times in a row and then we beat them in a playoff game to get to that NCAA Tournament.”
You can draw parallels to this Princeton team, which had to snap the hex that Yale seemed to have over it in the Ivy League Tournament final. The Tigers had lost 10 of the last 11 meetings to the Bulldogs, including a meltdown in which they coughed up an 18-point lead with eight-and-half-minutes remaining in the February game at Jadwin.
Henderson said that low moment was a turning point of the season. Princeton rebounded by winning at Harvard and then rallying itself from an 18-point deficit against Penn in the regular-season finale to claim a share of the Ivy title. In the Ivy Tournament, the Tigers beat the arch rival Quakers for a ninth straight time and then finally overcame Yale.
What that got them was a No. 15 seed and one of the toughest draws possible. The Wildcats are coming off a Pac-12 Tournament title in which they won three games in three games, culminating with a victory over regular-season champion UCLA.
Arizona is big — its two leading scorers are the 6-foot-11 Azuolas Tubelis (19.8 points, 9.3 rebounds) and the 7-foot Oumar Ballo (14.2 points, 8.5 rebounds) — and fast. It plays at one of the quickest tempos in the country and ranks in the top-20 nationally in points per game (4th; 82.7), field goal percentage (3rd; 49.6%), 3-point percentage (17th; 38.2%), rebounding (9th; 39.4) and rebounding differential (16th; +6.2).
“It’s going to be an unbelievable challenge and we got to be pretty special to get it done, but we’re here to compete,” Allocco said. “We’re going to fight, we’re going to compete and it should be a great game.”
It’s not like Princeton is a push over.
Tosan Evbuomwan (15 points, 6.2 rebounds,4.8 assists) is one of the most unique players in the country and Ivy Rookie of the Year Caden Pierce has emerged as a star in the making after posting double-doubles in both Ivy Tournament games.
“They still have to guard us and play us,” Henderson said. “I think in these games and these moments you have to remember what got you here. We are very respectful of our opponent, but you have to be yourself. We’re going to give it our best shot of being the best version of us, which is what got us here.”
Maybe, just maybe, a little March magic 27 years later.
“It’s a massive inspiration and a really cool thing that they did,” Evbuomwan said. “We’re able to look back on it, and hopefully, be able to repeat that a little bit.”
WHO: No. 15 Princeton (21-8) vs. No. 2 Arizona (28-6)
WHEN: Thursday, 4:10 p.m., Golden 1 Center, Sacramento, Calif.
TV/ RADIO: TNT/ Princeton Sports Network
LINE: Arizona -14.5
LAST TIME OUT: Princeton def. Yale, 74-65, in Ivy Tournament final; Arizona def. UCLA, 61-59, in Pac-12 Tournament final
STREAK: Princeton W4; Arizona W3
SERIES HISTORY: Arizona leads, 1-0. The Wildcats won the only meeting, 54-41, on Dec. 27, 1985 in Tucson. However, Princeton coach Mitch Henderson has a 3-1 career record against the Pac-12. The Tigers own victories over Oregon State (2021), Arizona State (2018) and USC (2017) during his tenure.
KENPOM RANK: Princeton 112; Arizona 10
BRACKET BREAKDOWN: The Princeton/Arizona gets the survivor of the first-round game between seventh-seeded Missouri (24-9) and 10th-seeded Utah State (26-8). … Alabama (29-5) is the No. 1 seed — and top overall seed — in the South Region, which feeds into Louisville for the Sweet 16 matchups.
PRINCETEON PLAYER TO WATCH: Tosan Evbuomwan. The 6-8 senior forward out of Newcastle, England was a unanimous First Team All-Ivy selection after averaging 15 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.8 assists. In this up-tempo version of the Princeton offense, he is the sun and everybody else are planets in his orbit. Look for the Tigers to let him work in one-on-one situations to dissect the defense. If Arizona sends help, Evbuomwan will kick the ball out to open shooters where the likes of Ryan Langborg, Matt Allocco and Caden Pierce must make shots.
ARIZONA PLAYER TO WATCH: Azuolas Tubelis. The 6-11 junior forward out Vilnius, Lithuania was named First Team All-Pac 12 after averaging 19.8 points and 9.3 rebounds. He also shot 57.5% from the field. Tubelis has improved in each of his three seasons with the Wildcats, raising his point-per-game numbers every year. With Princeton’s tallest rotation player checking in at 6-9, how it tries to cope with Arizona’s size and speed will be something to watch. When the Wildcats were slowed down it was by some zone defenses — they finished the regular season 3-3 before ripping off three wins in three days at the Pac 12 Tournament — and the Tigers have occasionally shown some 1-3-1. Look for Henderson to show different defensive looks and then try to space Arizona out on defense by perhaps downsizing and putting four shooters on the perimeter around Evbuomwan.
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