On Friday, there was a buzz on the Princeton University campus, a specific type of buzz that hadn’t been felt for a long time.
After all, Princeton was on the national stage — a position it’s comfortable in, considering its incredible prestige. This day, however, it was for something a little different than what it usually attracts attention for. The Princeton men’s basketball team was in the Sweet 16, playing for a spot in the Elite Eight.
“Everyone was waiting for this moment,” said Gil Joseph, a current student at Princeton. “More than anything, people were just excited to be on the national spotlight like this. You know, everyone talking about Princeton, the ‘Cinderella’, ‘keep dancing’ and stuff like this, it definitely helped us get through this week, which was the first week back after spring break, when nobody wanted to be here.”
With most students gone for break last week, the excitement was a bit more scattered. Even after the Tigers knocked off No. 2 Arizona, there were some news cameras and some school spirit, but the campus was largely quiet.
Not this week, and certainly not Friday night. While Princeton and Creighton began their battle for a spot in the Elite Eight after 9 o’clock in the evening, the buzz on campus was still there. After Tosan Evbuomwan, the team’s star big man, laid in the first points of the game, there was a loud scream across campus from various informal gatherings (a bit staggered, due to the various lengths of delay on the different streams).
Floodlights came on in the early evening next to the Whig and Clio Hails. Built more than 100 years ago with matching Ionic styles, reminiscent of ancient Greek architecture, the halls were built to house the prestigious Whig and Clio debating societies. On Friday night, the Whig Hall, still home to political events, model U.N., and debates, broadcasted another type of must-see competition.
Inside, there were at least two separate viewing spaces. In the main Senate Hall upstairs, people crammed into two levels of the space. Dozens of chairs were set out, and dozens more crammed into the standing spaces or sat on the floor, watching the game projected onto three large screens. Balloons and humorous posters lined the walls. Patrons held humorous signs and posters of their favorite players. The room was darkened to create an optimal viewing experience, but many attempting to enter remarked how it resembled a sauna.
Downstairs, in the Oakes Lounge, the excitement was just as strong, but the room had a bit more air flow and coolness flowing through, and a bit more room. On one wall hung massive cloth posters of Blake Peters and head coach Mitch Henderson. Everyone was adorned in orange and black.
This wasn’t the only predominantly orange and black building cheering on the Tigers, of course. Eight hundred miles southwest, in the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Kentucky, Tiger fans made up over half the fans in the stadium, and they brought the energy.
“We told everybody, wait until you see. We talked to our fans in the hotel before we came over and did a lot of interviews this week, on T.V., never got worked up or nervous. I was so fired up before coming over here,” Henderson said after the game. “It was the coolest thing … we love our school, and we feel really good about the school, but we felt the love.”
As the game progressed, there were a few more “awws” than cheers in the early going.
Creighton was getting good looks, and made most of them. Princeton appeared to focus a bit more on the agile 7-foot-1 Ryan Kalkbrenner, who had scored a total of 41 points in his first two games. The Tigers elected to sag on certain shooters, namely Trey Alexander and Baylor Scheierman, who made them pay. Scheierman and Alexander made their first five 3-point attempts and 9 of their first 10 shots combined. Some vocal fans stood up in the viewing party and voiced their displeasure at the quality of Creighton’s looks early.
Princeton converted a number of looks inside with Evbuomwan, guard Ryan Langborg and others, but it seemed like they were trading their twos for Creighton 3s as they found themselves trailing 24-16.
Then, Princeton made their move. The long-range shots that were so deadly against Missouri suddenly reappeared, and their defense began to get some stops.
In the Oakes Lounge, “BLAKE PETERS!” was a popular cry of a few students whenever Peters was on the court, hoping he would recreate his lethal second half performance against Missouri when he made five triples and never allowed the other Tigers into the game. His hot streak continued, as he hit his first three baskets, including a 3-pointer that capped off a 21-9 run for Princeton to give it a 37-33 lead with just over four minutes to play in the first half.
The crowd was going nuts in the arena. Back on campus, students were jumping up and down and shouting. “Scholars and ballers!” some students exclaimed. People held up their shirts with the “Make Shots” mantra that Princeton has embraced this year. Everyone could feel another upset brewing.
Evbuomwan was especially key during the extended run, finishing the first half with 15 points, four rebounds and six assists, as Princeton played through him for almost the entirety of the first half.
“I just think he is more unique than most of the fives we play,” said Creighton’s Kalkbrenner after the game. ”Just because, I guess, he is more of a forward, but as far as my matchup because he has such good ball skills and can drive it and shoot it a little bit. (He’s a) really good passer.”
Despite his strong play, in a key moment in the game, Creighton swung the game back in its favor with a quick 10-0 spurt in the final three minutes. Princeton missed some decent looks, Trey Alexander scored a fast break layup, and Kalkbrenner finally began to get involved, converting a three-point play in transition and eventually pouring in Creighton’s final seven points of the half.
“That last couple of minutes of the first half it was very difficult to figure out how to get stops, and they were just right top of us,” Henderson said.
However, two late Princeton baskets within 15 seconds of each other, the latter being a Peters transition triple, helped keep the margin at four points at halftime. The Whig Hall crowd roared its approval as the team jogged off for the locker room.
But the second half began with the Bluejays scoring 9 of the first 11 points to push the lead to double digits for the first time, and the on-campus crowd became a little bit more pessimistic. By the 12-minute mark, Creighton pushed the lead to 68-52, with the help of Kalkbrenner on the inside, and outside shooting, including a banked 3 from Scheierman.
“I think transition hurt us. I think it was pretty evident out there,” Langborg said after the game. “I’m just proud of what we’ve done and going to try not to think about it too much. But, yeah, if we got back on defense a little more, I think it would have been a little better.”
“Too many quick possessions,” Henderson added. “I mean, we had five turnovers on the game. We got 10 more shots than they did. We just couldn’t stop them.”
Henderson had seen enough. He called timeout to switch to a 1-3-1 zone, which brought them back into the game. Creighton turned the ball over a couple of times and was forced into shots deeper in possessions. Princeton did their best to make players that had not been as dominant from the outside beat them, and those players missed their open looks.
Creighton attempted several lobs to athletic forward Arthur Kaluma cutting along the baseline, but was unable to complete the pass on any of them.
“Obviously that’s why teams go to zone to try to throw you off, and they maybe got us a few possessions where we didn’t necessarily handle it as well as we could,” Kalkbrenner noted.
Princeton, meanwhile, didn’t convert all of their chances — Creighton’s size disrupted and denied most paint looks from Princeton’s smaller players — but eventually Langborg and Evbuoman each hit a triple to help cut the lead to 68-60.
Then, the luck began to run out for Princeton. The magic was fading. On the next possession, Creighton again looked befuddled by the zone defense, but Scheierman found an opening for a very long triple as the shot clock was expiring. He drained it.
Later, Creighton was unable to convert on another lob attempt, but the ball was saved from going out of bounds and made its way to Alexander, who hit a 3 on the busted play as the time was running down, pushing the lead back to 11.
Langborg and Princeton continued to fight, trailing by only seven points with just over three minutes to play. After forcing a Creighton miss, Peters, dynamic in the second half against Missouri last Saturday, stepped up for a triple in transition for the Tigers.
In and out. Creighton scored on the other end, and some in the crowd knew then that it was over. Still, they gave a standing ovation when the Tigers eventually fell by a final count of 86-75.
In the end, despite 26 points from Langborg, and 24 from Evbuomwan, they couldn’t overcome a supremely efficient performance by Creighton’s Kalkbrenner, Alexander and Scheierman, who combined for 62 points on nearly 70% shooting. Yet, they still hoped they’d leave a lasting impression on viewers.
“I’m hopeful that they watched those games and, you know, saw the great team that we are and the great talents that we have,” Evbuomwan said. “We have very talented guys, and we really gel well together as a group. It’s our style of play, selfless basketball.”
“I think the Ivy League and a lot of other schools around the same kind of conferences, I think we deserve the recognition,” Langborg added. “You’ve seen [three] years in a row where teams, 15 seeds and things, are making runs. I think it just shows that there’s not a lot that separates us from everyone else.”
Of course, Princeton isn’t exactly the same as your typical Cinderella. It’s hard for one of the most prestigious schools in the country to be put “on the map” in the way that fellow New Jersey schools Saint Peter’s and Fairleigh Dickinson were this tournament and last. The university has one of the highest endowments in the country. Players had differing viewpoints of the “Cinderella” label during the run.
But on the court, it has been a long time since the Ivy League, which of course, offers no athletic scholarships, competed toe-to-toe with top-flight competition in collegiate athletic’s most prominent sports. Princeton became just the fourth Ivy team in the Sweet 16 since the tournament expanded to 32 in 1975, and just the second since 1979. Princeton hadn’t been this close to the pinnacle since the mid-1960s.
Much has also been made of the student-athletes’ various academic exploits, especially some of the players’ theses that have had to be put on hold a bit during the run. That’s brought a lot of pride to the community as well.
“I’ve enjoyed the attention on the team’s academic priorities — you’ve probably seen the coverage and the emphasis on the fact that our players are working on problem sets, doing calculus homework and then going out and winning games nobody expected them to win,” remarked Ian Deas in the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students. “So, I think that means a lot for our community, and seeing our women do that earlier in the tournament as well, I think has been really special.”
Downstairs in the Oakes Lounge, where there was a bit more room, many of the students sitting in chairs had their laptops out, ostensibly working on schoolwork during breaks in the action. During timeouts, there was chatter about exams taken two weeks prior and papers that needed to be written, along with, of course, normal college student chatter.
One of those patrons was Solon Snider Sway, lecturer in Music Directing and Choral Programs at Princeton. He was sneaking in some work on a musical arrangement during free moments. Like everyone else, even despite his busy schedule, he was caught up in the magical run.
“It was just thrilling, it was incredibly fun. The campus was just buzzing, especially tonight,” he said. “Something so beautiful about that, people talking about how the team had such beautiful strategy and beautiful teamwork, and that was pretty exciting.”
Princeton was unable to keep the buzz on campus for at least one more day, but they brought everyone on campus together, and most importantly, they brought themselves together.
“We created great memories with one another, and I think that’s what it’s all about. You know, being able to look back and be proud of something which you’ve done together as a unit,” Evbuomwan said.
“Our bond was great,” he concluded. “We’re going to have an even greater bond, and it’s going to be special. I’m sure it will last all of our lifetimes, everybody on the team, top to bottom.”