Don’t count out Mitch Henderson and the Princeton Tigers.
The Tigers have won nine straight and are a prefect 4-0 in Ivy League play. Several of these victories have come down to the final moments, including three decided by a single possession. Two of the wins came without star guard Jaelin Llewellyn, who leads the team in scoring at 15.9 points per game. It seems as though every game, someone different comes up with a historic moment.
After picking up wins over Drexel, Bucknell and Lafayette, Princeton made it four in a row with an 89-77 win over UMBC in mid-December. The Tigers held slight control throughout this close game, but it was neither Llewellyn nor Tosan Evboumwan who won the player of the night. It was fifth-year senior Elijah Barnes.
With a 73-71 lead, Barnes took the game into his own hands and scored four straight points. He then hit a dagger three to set a career-high of nine points.
Check out Season 4 - Episode 6 of Hard Cuts!— Princeton Men’s Basketball (@PrincetonMBB) December 30, 2021
Another non-conference win, this time over UMBC. A trip to the Tigers’ broadcast center for @elijahbarnes31!
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“I got an opportunity and made the most out of it,” Barnes said. “That’s all anybody has to do. We have 19 guys, so any one of us can play. Anybody can do what I do.”
Barnes wasn’t a normal rotation player. Prior to this game, he had played more than 13 minutes just once, and it was in a 37-point blowout win a couple of years ago. In this game against UMBC, he made a big impact in a close game against a good team.
“I’m very proud of Elijah,” Henderson said, “He hasn’t been playing. He comes in and works every single day. Never says anything but support for his teammates. In fact, he’s the best communicator about what’s best for other guys on the team at that moment.”
The Tigers took a five-game winning streak into the new year after a 100-59 win over D-III Kean on Dec. 21. They would not play again until Jan. 7 as its Ivy League opener was postponed due to COVID issues within the Harvard program.
Princeton’s league game was against Columbia, who was picked last in the preseason poll. The Lions entered the game at 3-9, including a 38-point loss to UMBC - a team Princeton beat by 12.
Columbia gave Princeton a battle and ended a dominant first half on a 9-2 run to take a 45-33 lead at the break. The team, who was 200 spots lower than the Tigers on Ken Pomeroy, was on the way to pulling off a massive upset, but it didn’t last.
The Tigers went on a 15-0 second-half run and got their to as much as 18 en route to beating the Lions 84-69. Princeton outscored Columbia by 27 in the second half.
“We got punched in the face, and I think we responded well,” Evbuomwan said,
Evboumwan picked up 22 points and six rebounds, but that was nothing new to him this season. He scored 27 against Drexel and is averaging 14.7 points per game, good for second-best on the team.
Next up was the Cornell Big Red, who had an excellent non-conference finishing 8-3. For this one, the Tigers were without Llewellyn because of an injury.
In stepped sophomore Matt Allocco, who made his first collegiate start. Once again it was not a pretty first half as the Tigers trailed 39-25 at the break. Cornell extended its lead to 47-29 at the first media timeout.
After that, the 3-pointers began to fall for Princeton.
Drew Friberg and Ethan Wright hit two quick triples to cut the Big Red lead back down to eight with 10 minutes remaining. Allocco hit another, followed by one from Ryan Langborg, as part of an 8-0 run to tie the game with three minutes left.
After the Tigers took the lead, Cornell hit a layup with six seconds left, to go up 70-69.
That was when Allocco put the game in his hands. As time expired, he threw up a three that dropped to give Princeton the 72-70 win on his birthday no less.
“I don’t know what to tell ya,” he said, “End of the buzzer, had to get it up. It went in, and that’s all I can ask for. We got the win, that’s all that matters.”
Allocco’s shot was featured on both March Madness’ Twitter and Scott Van Pelt’s “SportsCenter” as “The Best Thing (He) Saw Today.”
The Tigers carried that momentum into an impressive victory against Brown in another game that went down to the final seconds.
It was close throughout, and Princeton took the lead because of some sharpshooting late. Evbuomwan ultimately made the game-winning defensive play. After a missed 3-point attempt by the Bears, Evbuomwan stopped Tamenang Choh from taking the game-tying shot under the basket as time expired.
Llewellyn returned on Martin Luther King Jr. Day after a two-game absence due to injury. He helped Princeton defeat rival Penn 74-64. The win moved the Tigers’ win streak to nine and a perfect 11-0 at home.
Princeton will look to extend its stellar start on Saturday as it travels to face a pesky Dartmouth team in its first road game since Dec. 11.
With how deep this Tigers’ squad is, one needs to remember them when filling out brackets in March. Not many teams can do it in multiple ways like them, and the Tigers have shown they can do it against big-time opponents. Prior to this current win streak, they beat both South Carolina and Oregon State and took Minnesota to double overtime.
The Tigers are primed to make their first trip to the Big Dance since 2017 and win their first tournament game since the ‘90s.