SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Mitch Henderson’s victory leap that punctuated Princeton’s famed upset over UCLA in 1996 has become an iconic moment. There is a picture of the joyous jump at the school’s practice facility that serves as a constant reminder of what’s possible.
Now Henderson’s current players have authored one of their own.
Ryan Langborg lifted Princeton to its first lead with 2:03 to play and the Tigers used a late-game run to earn their first NCAA Tournament win in 25 years, topping No. 2 seed Arizona 59-55 on Thursday.
“Pretty surreal feeling,” guard Matt Allocco said. “To beat a great team like that on this stage is a pretty special feeling. But also I can’t say I’m surprised. This team has been so good all year, so gritty. On paper, it’s going to look like a big upset. But we believe in each other and we think we’re a really good team. When we’re at our best, then I think we can beat anybody in the country.”
The 15th-seeded Tigers (22-9) scored the final nine points, holding the Pac-12 Tournament champion scoreless over the final 4:43.
Tosan Evbuomwan scored 15 points in Princeton's first tournament victory since beating UNLV in 1998 when Henderson was a player for the Tigers.
Henderson also played on the 1996 team that beat defending champion UCLA in the school's final tournament under coach Pete Carril, who died in August. This victory fittingly came in Sacramento, where Carril spent time as an NBA assistant after retiring as Tigers coach.
“He would be very proud of the group,” Henderson said. “He wouldn’t want any attention to be brought other than what these guys did. They played to win. We knew we had to keep the game low possessions.”
Princeton advanced to play seventh-seeded Missouri in the second round of the South Region. The Tigers beat Utah State 76-65.
Azuolas Tubelis scored 21 points for the Wildcats (28-7), who haven't won a tournament game in consecutive years since 2014-15.
It marked the third straight year and 11th time overall that a No. 15 seed won a first-round game. Arizona is the only school to be on the wrong end of one of those upsets twice, also losing to Steve Nash and Santa Clara in 1993.
“If you want to be a great player, you want to be a great coach, we all got to learn from this,'” coach Tommy Lloyd said. “We got to go back and figure out what happened and understand the value of being up 10 to 12 points with 10 minutes to go, putting the hammer on people, not letting people get back in the game.”
The Wildcats seemed in control of this one when Oumar Ballo's basket put them up 10 with eight minutes left.
But the Tigers responded with seven straight points, capped by a second-chance 3-pointer from Blake Peters that made it 51-48 with about six minutes left.
They closed the game with a 9-0 run — just like they did in their most memorable tournament win against UCLA in 1996.
Keeshawn Kellman started the spurt with a putback dunk before Langborg hit a jumper and then a layup to give the Tigers the lead.
The Wildcats then missed all five shots down the stretch and Princeton put it away at the foul line. Langborg also blocked Courtney Ramey's shot with 50 seconds left and the Tigers protecting a one-point lead.
“When I blocked it I saw the whole crowd erupt,” he said. “My teammates were all locked in with each other and it was kind of that moment where you know, like, ‘Wow we can really do this. We’re going to do this and nothing’s going to stop us.’”
Ramey, who hit a game-winning shot in the Pac-12 Tournament, missed a contested 3-pointer with 14 seconds left that could have tied the game. Kerr Kriisa also missed from long range after an offensive rebound, sending Princeton into an early celebration.
LET THEM PLAY
The game featured just 12 free throws, with four coming after intentional fouls by Arizona late in the game. The Wildcats went to the line seven times despite a big size advantage with Tubelis and Bello.
“You go inside over and over and over again, and you shoot seven free throws. I mean, I don’t know if they’re fouls or not. They must not have been because obviously they didn’t get called,” Lloyd said. “When the game is reffed like that, it makes it tough.”
Princeton: The Tigers gave the Ivy League its first tournament win since 2016 when Yale beat Baylor. The conference had been one-and-done the last four trips, having missed the 2021 edition because of COVID-19.
Arizona: The Wildcats got little help offensively outside of Tubelis and Ballo, who combined for 35 points. The rest of the team shot 9 for 27.
Princeton will look to win two games in the tournament for the first time since 1983.