Princeton crushes Mizzou basketball’s postseason dreams without a Sweet 16

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — As chants of “Sweet 16! Sweet 16!” cascading through the Golden 1 Center from one corner of the building on Saturday, Kobe Brown took off his Missouri jersey and headed for the locker room. Noah Carter followed him, raised his left hand and saluted the crowd. DeAndre Gholston grabbed the basketball and took one last shot into the frame. Nick Honor lifted his jersey over his head, wiping away the tears that accompany every final buzzer beater of the season.

Those songs were for the authors of the latest March Cinderella story, the 15th-seeded Princeton Tigers, who experienced another March Madness weekend with a 78-63 win. But every fairytale ending comes at a price for someone – and that someone was Mizzou on Saturday.

Oh, March Madness. A team that has embraced its role as the underdog all season, Dennis Gates’ Tigers arrived in California this week undefeated as the betting favorites, but this time they stumbled as a heavyweight. Princeton, meanwhile, had to beat top-seeded Yale in Sunday’s Ivy League tournament to even reach the Big Dance, then upset No. 2 seed Arizona to set up Saturday’s matchup. In its third game in six days, a Princeton team that lost regular-season games to Delaware, Navy, Brown and Dartmouth thoroughly outplayed No. 7 seed Mizzou in every facet of the game to earn its first Sweet 16 appearance in 56 years.

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How thoroughly? Princeton’s 15-point margin of victory was the largest in tournament history for a No. 15 seed. This was Mizzou’s 51st game all-time in the NCAA Tournament and tied for the third-worst margin of defeat.

Did Princeton (23-8) have a better team or a better season before Saturday’s tip-off? Few would argue that. But the Ivy Leaguers played a far superior game, leading Mizzou (25-10) on the scoreboard for nearly 38 minutes.

“We were able to take the lead one time,” Mizzou coach Dennis Gates said. “We held the lead for 30 seconds throughout the game. Every time we led or they led, we cut 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 the same shots.”

Princeton also took advantage of two of Mizzou’s weaknesses all season that resurfaced at the worst possible time: rebounding and 3-point defense. Mitch Henderson’s team dominated the glass 44-30 and outscored MU in second-chance points 19-2. Two days after suffocating Utah State from the perimeter, Mizzou allowed Princeton to run its half-court offense with maximum precision. The New Jersey underdog consistently created open looks from 3-point range, connecting on 12 of 33 shots from deep. Reserve Blake Peters, the grandson of two Mizzou graduates, torched his grandparents’ alma mater with five 3-pointers and matched his career high with 17 points. Ryan Langborg was Princeton’s most lethal threat, finishing with a game-high 22 points.

Princeton’s Caden Pierce, a 6-6 freshman, grabbed 16 rebounds himself, including seven steals. Ivy League Player of the Year Tosan Evbuomwan scored just nine points, but he directed the Henderson guard’s frontcourt offense with five assists.

“I would say it was the complete opposite of Utah State,” Honor said. “Rebounds and threes when it comes down to it. They are one heck of a team.”

“Truthfully, we let them do what they do best, run 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 get to what they wanted and it really changed the game.”

On the other end of the floor, Mizzou’s offense stagnated from the start as Princeton clogged up the driving lanes, forcing the Tigers to settle for jumpers that rarely fell. Gates’ team shot just 6-of-22 from behind the arc and wasn’t much better closer to the rim, missing 10 layups. The referees barely used their whistles when Mizzou had the ball, calling just nine Princeton fouls. When bodies collided in the paint — or in D’Moi Hodge’s case, when his skull hit the court early in the second half — the team consistently let the action flow. As a result, Mizzou attempted a season-low seven free throws.

“They keep their body in front of their guys,” Henderson said of his defenders. “Good old-fashioned, solid defense.”

Brown, who finished with 12 points, credited Princeton’s high-handed defense for blocking his vision through a barrage of double teams in the post. Princeton kept the defender glued to Hodge all night, holding him to a season-low two points in his final college game.

Mizzou missed 10 of 11 shots midway through the first half, going scoreless for more than three minutes, going into a much-needed timeout. Gates switched to a zone defense late in the possession, but Langborg broke through the Tigers for a 31-19 lead.

Mizzou ended the half with a bang. Honor topped the scoring count with a corner 3-pointer, then on the final possession of the half, Sean East II sank a baseline jumper at the final buzzer, cutting Princeton’s lead to 33-26 at the break.

“We were in a good mood (at halftime),” Brown said. “We tried to encourage each other, to show each other what we were doing wrong. I wouldn’t say we were overconfident because we were obviously losing the whole game.”

Mizzou pulled to within five points on a quick layup by Brown to open the second half, but Princeton came back with a key 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 court as he went down. With 16:48 left in the half, Hodge went to the bench where he stayed until 9:25.

By then, Princeton had taken complete control. Peters’ 3-pointer with 9:37 left Princeton ahead by 10 — and the Tigers led by double digits the rest of the way.

“They’re very avid Tiger fans,” Peters said of his grandparents, Russell and Gail Smith, who graduated from Mizzou in the 1960s. “But I know they were rooting for their grandson today. That’s what makes things like this so special, doing it in front of your family here, watching at home. I hope they are proud of me.”

Peters and the rest of Princeton’s plucky bunch now march on to Louisville, where they will represent the Ivy League in Friday’s Sweet 16 game against the winner of Sunday’s Baylor-Creighton matchup. Princeton was last in the round of 16 in 1967 – just two years after Missouri’s Bill Bradley suited up for Princeton.

For the rest of the Tigers, Saturday’s season finale officially sent Gates into the offseason. He sat in the stands with four of his players whose college eligibility expired in Saturday’s loss: Hodge, DeAndre Gholston (19 points) and team captains Ben Sternberg and Tre Gomillion, whose groin injury kept him out for all four of MU’s postseason games . Brown, coming off his best season in college by far, could decide to turn pro or use his final season of eligibility. Others will have to make decisions as well, although key veterans like Honor, Carter and East should return for their final college season.

“Right now I just want to grieve with my teammates, especially the four that didn’t qualify,” Brown said. “In the offseason, me and Coach Gates will sit down and talk when we’re ready.”

“We shouldn’t have been here in the first place,” Gomillion said, eyes red from tears streaming down the locker room. “We shouldn’t have made the SEC semifinals. I mean, we lost in the end… but we have a lot to be proud of.”

In his final minute on the sideline as a varsity player, Gomillion showed why he was a beloved teammate and why the staff hailed him as a future coach. As the seconds ticked away, he approached Gates with a proposition: Put Sternberg in the game. On cue, Gates signaled his pass to check in for the final 26 seconds of the season.

Soon followed a close to the season that few could have seen, but an end that came without a doubt.

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